Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, first published in 2014, told the story of human history as the invention of ever more complex fictions. The product of these fictions—a thing we might call progress—was not necessarily a net benefit for individual humans. It was pulling us away from our happiness and, probably, toward our destruction as a species. That rather bleak reading of history turned Harari from a little-known professor of history into an apostle who illuminates who we were, and who we will become. Harari now has millions of champions, including Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as a handful of follow-up best sellers, and a company that promotes solutions to the challenges his book identified.
Somehow, I had missed out on this phenomenon. OK, not entirely. Once, a few years ago, I tried the audiobook edition of Sapiens on a lengthy drive. I made it about 10 minutes before flipping to Fresh Air. Big History, as Harari’s discipline is often called, was just too grand a scale for this distractible driver. Too many details, too many sweeping themes to ponder.
But here we are again. Sapiens has been rereleased, this time in a bright, highly accessible graphic novel form. It’s the same grand meditation on human knowledge and taxonomy, but more digestible. Fun. Joke-y. Colorful. Harari’s illustrators have taken liberties with their source material, which is a good thing. They use the form to the fullest. It’s full of situational comedy: a courtroom drama, a heckler at an anthropology conference, hunter-gather reality TV. Harari pops in as a charismatic illustrated narrator. And everything about it—the odd situations, the visual aides—makes it possible to be introduced to an idea or concept and ponder it for a moment, to internalize it. There are risks in illustrating a narrative that paints history in broad brushes—that the characters become caricatures, that scientific evidence becomes expediently elided ( a charge already made by many scholars about Harari’s original text). Is this the simple version? Probably. If I had a child, I’d read it to them and challenge them to handle the anatomically correct illustrations of the vast Homo genus. But I don’t have children, and I still had fun. —Gregory Barber