This is the eighth in a series of 52. For more information on this personal project go here: 52 Reads Project.
Arcane Sugar gives off a bright and infectious energy. She is also curious and smart-as-a-whip, so I should have expected her recommendation would be intellectually stimulating as all get out.
This Last week’s read is was Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett. Sugar says, “I love how language affects perception and I think this is an excellent book and true story which I have read more than once.”
While I finished the book over a week ago, I have been having a hard time finding the time words to write about it.
To be honest, this book gave me nightmares.
I cheated and binge-read Gillian Flynn’s black hearted thriller Sharp Objects before cracking the spine of this book.
It’s Everett’s book that gave me nightmares.
Linguist Everett ventures into the thick of the Brazilian rain forest to study the language of the Pirahã. His residency and study are initially funded by a missionary organization. His job is to translate the Christian Bible into the Pirahã language in order to introduce the Gospel to this indigenous community. The title of his book is a translation of a common Pirahã phrase, “Don’t sleep, there are snakes.” Everett notes that this phrase embodies the Pirahã ’s need to grow hard in an environment where anaconda, jaguars, and malaria cohabitate with the community.
Everett weaves the complexities of linguistics with his personal experience on the Amazon’s tributaries. Early chapters focus more on his and his family’s adaptation to life with the Pirahã including a harrowing journey down the Maici River to try to access medical help for his malaria-stricken wife and daughter. He also describes in vivid a time when he convinced several Pirahã men not to kill him—his life is not threatened by rage, but a dispassionate mercenary spirit.
It is exactly this described Pirahã disposition that proved nightmare fuel for me. Everett ultimately finds inspiration in their collective disconnect and disinterest in history and invention. He notes that their perception of time, reinforced by the structure of their language, embeds them in the current moment and this keeps Western afflictions like neurosis and depression out of the villages. (His breakdown is of course much more sophisticated than this summation.) As someone whose body often feels full of nothing but neurosis and depression, I can understand the enticement of this way of life. It’s a sort of intrinsic mindfulness or whatever the de rigueur term is for avoiding the excessive churn of memory and expectation. However, the community this breeds is not something my soft, individualistic, and avoidant Western personality can adapt to—even just as words on the page.
The village homes are thatched roof huts with half walls. Frogs, spiders, and snakes engage in survival of the fittest escapades within the underside of the roofs. The Pirahã have no creation myths, and don’t believe in anything that wasn’t witnessed by someone living. They do believe in spirits, but the spirits emerge in a sort of play-acting in which the people of the village embody the voices for the recently deceased. Of course, I did not find myself concerned by malaria or this elegant form of haunting. What upset me was that the Pirahã always seem to be watching from just outside the half walls. They are always everywhere, onlooking with a kind of dispassionate curiosity. While they are often helpful, they also let people in their community suffer and die with a unnervingly detached fatalism. Community living is my worst nightmare, my particular neuroses demand exit routes and access to solitude. Given the choice, I’d rather hug an anaconda than be endlessly watched. Because of this, I had nightmares well after the final pages of the book.
But, the book isn’t about me. Everett–an adaptable, brilliant, and curious man–spends 30 years on and off with the Pirahã . Initially sent as a missionary, his time with the Pirahã changes his perception of the world. He becomes an advocate for protection of their lands. He renounces his Christian faith. His observations of the language make waves in the linguistics community, challenging universal language standards established by none other than Noam Chomsky.
While the book often feels like a string of anecdotes of a stranger in a strange land, in the latter half of the book Everett takes a deep dive into language and perception. And that’s where a second kind of nightmare really set in. The idea that language might make reality unknowable haunts me. As an erstwhile writer, listener, reader and lover of language—I always want to focus on the ways language has the capacity to connect. However, while it is possible to learn language as a non-native speaker, some facets of foreign language and thinking can prove too large a hill to climb, even for someone immersed in a culture for decades. Considering this amplifies the subtle differences and dialects within my own language…and even those within my own peer groups…and even those within my own home. It’s been at least a year since I’ve thought seriously about phonemes and syntax. Still it’s not hard to notice where we might use the same words, but still never fully understand each other.
It’s a neurotic and misguided takeaway from a sophisticated and nuanced study, I know. I’m the real nightmare.
Despite the bad dream fuel, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I am intrigued by linguistics, but too undisciplined to truly deep dive into the subject myself. I am happy to be a passenger in another’s study, with the ability to close the book’s cover to seal in the anacondas, the malaria, and–especially–the peering eyes, trapped inside the pages.
Next up: Sabriel by Garth Nix recommended by Julie. I’m going to have to do some quick reading with some hot takes to get back on track. …or just continue to meander through life on my own schedule like I normally do.
Double Negative by David Carkeet. Carkeet was one of my favorite professors during my first college attempt. His book is a tight mystery with linguistics braided into the whodunit. The book’s Miss Marple is Jeremy Cook, a linguist studying language development in toddlers. While my intent is to recommend less nightmarish fare, toddlers can be as terrifying as anacondas, so your mileage may not vary.