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Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Vintage Departures) Paperback – Illustrated, November 3, 2009
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Part passionate memoir, part scientific exploration, a life-changing tale set among a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in Brazil that offers a riveting look into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.
"Immensely interesting and deeply moving.... One of the best books I have read."—Lucy Dodwell, New Scientist
A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.
Daniel Everett arrived among the Pirahã with his wife and three young children hoping to convert the tribe to Christianity. Everett quickly became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications. The Pirahã have no counting system, no fixed terms for color, no concept of war, and no personal property. Everett was so impressed with their peaceful way of life that he eventually lost faith in the God he'd hoped to introduce to them, and instead devoted his life to the science of linguistics.
"Absorbing.... Shares its author's best traits: perseverance, insight, humor and humility. Both the Pirahas and their interpreter make splendid company."—The Plain Dealer
"Immensely interesting and deeply moving.... One of the best books I have read."—Lucy Dodwell, New Scientist
"A story of language and faith along the sweeping banks of the Maici River.... Verdict: Read."—Time
"Destined to become a classic of popular enthnography."—The Independent, London
"A genuine and engrossing book that is both sharp and intuitive; it closes around you and reaches inside you, controlling your every thought and movement as you read it.... Impossible to forget."—Sacramento Book Review
"Three stars.... [A] spiritual adventure story."—People
"A fascinating look into the lives of the Piraha, an Amazonian community of hunter-gatherers."—The Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes makes the rain forest sound like a magic mushroom."—Harper's Magazine
"A riveting account of a Christian missionary 'converted' to the viewpoint of the Amazonian Indians he had intended to evangelize."—The Huntsville Times
"Vivid.... The book is fascinating.... May serve to bring the furor of linguistics and language research to readers who otherwise never catch sight of it."—Science
"In this fascinating and candid account of life with the Pirahã, Everett describes how he learned to speak fluent Pirahã (pausing occasionally to club the snakes that harassed him in his Amazonian "office"). He also explains his discoveries about the language-findings that have kicked off more than one academic brouhaha."--Publishers Weekly (Signature Review)
"Rich account of fieldwork among a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Brazil . . . introduce[s] non-specialists to the fascinating ongoing debate about the origin of languages. . . . Everett's experiences and findings fairly explode from these pages and will reverberate in the minds of readers."—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Dan Everett has written an excellent book. First, it is a very powerful autobiographical account of his stay with the Pirahã in the jungles of the Amazon basin. Second, it is a brilliant piece of ethnographical description of life among the Pirahã. And third, and perhaps most important in the long run, his data and his conclusions about the language of the Pirahã run dead counter to the prevailing orthodoxy in linguistics. If he is right, he will permanently change our conception of human language."—John Searle, Slusser Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley
"Dan Everett is the most interesting man I have ever met. This story about his life among the Pirahãs is a fascinating read. His observations and claims about the culture and language of the Pirahãs are astounding. Whether or not all of his hypotheses turn out to be correct, Everett has forced many researchers to reevaluate basic assumptions about the relationship among culture, language and cognition. I strongly recommend the book."—Edward Gibson, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
About the Author
- Publisher : Vintage; Illustrated edition (November 3, 2009)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0307386120
- ISBN-13 : 978-0274805372
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.15 x 0.63 x 7.96 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #147,615 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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The Piraha have been extremely resistant to missionaries, and their culture has proven itself able to withstand the lure of modern civilization. It's Everett himself who eventually loses both his faith and his family. He painstakingly translates the Gospel of Mark and then broadcasts it throughout their village on a record player in the hope the Piraha will convert. I'm a Christian, but this sounds like mental torture. The Piraha state clearly that they talk to spirits and see them, but Everett prefers to believe they have no spiritual beliefs, then uses that idea to support his own conversion to atheism. He could never have turned these people into church-going Protestants. He shared the gospel, so he did his job.
The Piraha are both fatalistic and innocent, perfectly adapted to their home in the Amazon. Everett sees them as worthy of emulation, which I do not. The Piraha smile a lot, yes, but they ignore a woman dying in childbirth, and Everett does nothing to help her. A gang rape is witnessed by his wife without further comment. The men of the village, drunk on liquor given to them by river traders, threaten to kill him and his family.
When his wife and child are dying from malaria, Everett bravely undertakes an emergency transport to a hospital to save them. The circumstances of the trip to the outside are so unbelievably arduous it's not too much to say his family survived only by the grace of God, but he seems spiritually blind, even obstinate in his unbelief. His complete loss of faith and embrace of what he sees as Piraha values is a Heart of Darkness collapse that exposes many of the weaknesses of both Evangelical Christianity and his own modern philosophy. In spite of this, this book is a must read if you are interested in the interface between primitive and modern in today’s world.
Everett writes of moving, with his family, to live amongst the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon. This book is a clever weave of anecdotes of the author's ordeals living in the jungle with the tribe, which give us a window into this fascinating tribe and their culture and language, while, at all times, remaining engaging and humorous.
We learn that the people of the tribe are materially poor with little to no health-care and no long-lasting artifacts. Yet Everett finds them bewilderingly content with their lives and therefore completely inoculated against the sway of the outside world, referring to foreigners with the derogatory term "crooked heads." Despite a century of contact with missionaries and traders no one from the tribe has ever learned a foreign language or converted. Everett claims they value the present and observable so highly that they make no effort to make long-lasting artifacts or to invent creation myths. He claims their contentment and conservatism, rather than any differences in ability, are behind their rejection of bilingualism, written language and foreign culture and goods.
After starting out as a Christian missionary with a strong belief in Chomsky's theories of language, Everett is challenged in both beliefs by observing the tribe. He comes to reject Chomsky's theories of universal language, controversially claiming that the Pirahã language lacks sentence-level recursion and that language is much better understood as a product of culture. He finds the cultural value of the present and observable embedded in the Pirahã language which has few kinship terms or abstract concepts. He also comes to reject Christianity through the tribe's gentle skepticism: they doubt its usefulness due to their own contentment and because Everett has never met Jesus personally and therefore cannot answer such basic questions as Jesus' skin colour.
The book ends with a plea from Everett to preserve minority languages. From his thesis as language as an embodiment of culture, Everett sees the loss of a language as more than the loss of an abstract, arbitrary set of symbols for communicating, but as the loss of a set of solutions for the universal problems of life: meaning, relationships and values. The Pirahã tribe exists a 300 people living precariously in one area rapidly being encroached by the outside world, and yet there is so much more we have to learn from just this tribe, let alone the many others at risk.
It is an excellent book and reveals much about Everett and the Pirahã's contribution to our understanding of human language. It also communicates an existential challenge: a tribal group that finds satisfaction without materialism or modern science and technology seems to live happily and contentedly (near the end of the book Everett relates to the tribe the trauma of his step-mother suiciding which causes amusement as "Pirahã don't kill themselves").
My one disappointment, which doesn't reflect poorly on the book but the blurbs: it contains little about the process of Everett's rejection of Christianity. The focus of this book is squarely, and rightfully, on the Pirahã and their language. However, Everett does mention that for nearly 20 years of being a missionary he was secretly an atheist, his subsequent "coming out" has lead to the breakup of his marriage and conflict with his children. Since these events happened only a few years before this book was published perhaps such stories were too fresh to be told. Perhaps partly out of desire to understand my own change better, I do hope that Everett writes another book where he can focus on the process of changing his core beliefs, the struggles of living with that change internally for so many years and finally the challenge of "coming out." He has already demonstrated himself a generous communicator with a rich personal history and I hope that he will share more of his stories with us in the future.
Thanks to DM for helpful comments on an earlier draft.
Top reviews from other countries
The author is no starry-eyed romantic but intelligent and insightful . He obviously knew these people very well and this knowledge forms his conclusions .
I recommend this book to anyone interested in either other societies- or our own .