- May 31 - King Library Opens at 1:00 PM
The world is a strange and wonderful place, and nowhere is this more graphically illustrated in Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, now available at nine different SJPL branches. As a young man Daniel travels to the Amazon river with his family to learn the language of an obscure tribe of indigenous river dwellers called the Pirahña Indians, and to convert them to Christianity. Their language is not related to any other known language. Parts of it are truly unique: they have no words for numbers, and colors can only be relatively described--green is "the color like grass" or blue is "the color like sky." Time, too, is different--you are unable to describe something from before you are born--the past no longer exists. They have no creation myth, and worship no deities.
They do not have much interest in the world outside of their own area, and to them everything is transitory, even life. They routinely die of diseases that we take for granted in the first world, and their life expectancy is abysmal. Yet, paradoxically, they are considered the happiest people in the world. They live genuinely for the moment and care deeply about one another, sharing communally and having few tribal laws. The book's title comes from how they say good night--they pride themselves on self-sufficiency, and this is expected of everyone in the tribe.
I found myself caring for these people, and learning more about a culture radically different from the one I know. I was also fascinated by Dan's appreciation of what he learned--both from their language and their culture, and how he also changed. In failing to convert them, he finally realized that his beliefs had nothing to offer them--they were already happy just as they were. The author may have lost his family as a result of this unusual revelation, but I think he gained something in the end.
If I have any criticism about this book, it is in the short part at the end on linguistics. I thought that it was too technical for the average reader to appreciate--I certainly got lost by it! After going through the longer sections describing his adventures among the Pirahña Indians, I was hoping to be more engaged by his description of the language.
The best part of this book was learning to see things from a different viewpoint. Oscar Wilde once wrote, "A mind, once expanded by a new idea, never returns to it's former dimensions." This is that type of book. I wish this tiny tribe of 400 well. They may be small, but their unique language and beliefs have much to teach us in a world very far removed from theirs.