Friday, December 21, 2012

Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience by Laurence Gonzales

Rating: 1/5

I made it to page 160 before my "rage-pathway" imploded, which is to say, I could not survive to the end of Surviving Survival. (Note: the narrative ends on page 221 - the rest of the book is appendices, so I actually read most of it before quitting in disgust). This is a poorly written book by a man with no apparent academic credentials. He doesn't use citations to back up his "scientific" arguments, though he does have an extensive list of references at the end of the book to make it seem like his theories correspond to his research. I'm calling bullshit. Having a bibliography is not the same as linking your information directly to a credible source using endnotes. Gonzales further undermines his already questionable authority by making up his own names for neurological and psychological concepts. He dumbs everything down by providing information in a piecemeal way and using the informal "you" when trying to explain things. Some concepts are over-explained, and some are under-explained. His attempt to intertwine multiple stories along with research and theories results in a scattered, interrupted, and confusing narrative with no flow. While certain ideas may be linked in his mind, he has difficulty connecting them together for the reader - at times I would wonder "what does this have to do with the story you're telling?"

I lost all ability to take this author's ideas seriously on page 149:

"Travel is a time-honored strategy for healing. That may be the real reason that ancient people migrated out of Africa: As the human brain grew into the speculative and contemplative organ that it is, our capacity for grief grew as well. I doubt that we had to leave Africa because it was full. Travel may have been an early adaptation to profound grief."

Really. It was grief that made our ancestors leave Africa. Not changes in environment, a growing population and the need for more land and resources, or a desire to explore. No, it was grief. Grief from what exactly? Life? Being attacked by tigers? Please note that the author does not reference any science whatsoever to back up this particular theory of his. It's just a random, uninformed speculation, and it makes me wonder how much of the rest of the ideas in this book are of the same quality and origin.

I picked up this book because I was very interested in the topic of how people recover (or don't) from traumatic, life-threatening events. I don't think Gonzales has more real answers to this question than could fill a long magazine article. His attempts to explain the "science" are unprofessional and muddled. He occasionally tries to wax poetic and inspiring about the people whose stories he's telling (many of whom he'd recycled from his previous book), but to me it came off as exploitive and tasteless. This book was disorganized, completely lacking in credibility, and thoroughly aggravating. The author did justice to neither his subject nor the people whose tragedies he used to elucidate his subject. I hate this book.

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