The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Anima

What books are you currently reading?

"I always read a few books at once, so that I have something that suits whatever mood I'm in. I'm always reading fiction, but lately, I'm reading more non-fiction as well. I've found as I've gotten older that there are a lot of things I don't know, so I'm going back and sort of following up on my college education: reading a little philosophy, science, and history. One of the books I'm reading is The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, by Jared Diamond. He's a professor at UCLA; most people know him from his books Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies."

Tell us a little about the book.

"It's a nonfiction book about evolution. He explains evolution and natural selection in a way that the layman can understand. I'm fascinated by how closely related we are to chimpanzees and gorillas. On the family tree, gorillas branched off, and then right after them, chimps branched off, and then us. But we're the closest relation to the chimp; it's not the gorilla. We share 98.4% of our DNA with chimpanzees."

What is Diamond's argument?

"He's asking, what is it about that 1.6% difference in our DNA that makes us so phenomenally different? Meaning: we're advanced tool users, we have fire, cultural institutions, art, philosophy. He argues that the trigger for it was the development of speech, the way the larynx allowed humans to start speaking. That led to more advanced communication, which led to one thing and then another and another."

What about the style?

"Diamond is a good prose stylist. He's an academic, but also a gifted writer. Lots of people are smart, yet they can't write well."

What book has been most life-changing for you?

"A Death in the Family by James Agee. I read that during my freshman year at Loyola Marymount University, back in the late '70s. I was an English major, and it blew my mind. He was so sensitive -- he saw everything, heard everything, felt everything. He was like a human radar. His depiction of how a family copes with the unexpected death of the father in a car accident, seen through the eyes of a six-year-old boy, was a work of genius. And he started as a poet, so his sentences are gorgeous. I thought, "Wow, people can write like this? I want to write like this."

Who are your favorite authors?

"Well, James Agee. And I love Charles Dickens, his ability to weave stories, cast a spell over you, and immerse you in his story world. His characters are indelible. You never forget Pip or Estella or Miss Haversham from Great Expectations. They're archetypes of literature. I also love Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War. His writing is a little showy. Some people find Agee and Helprin to be purple prose, but I don't think so."

What magazines or newspapers do you read? How many articles do you read to the end?

"I subscribe to The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, American Journal, Mother Jones , and The Wilson Quarterly. I also read the L.A. Times and New York Times online. Any article I start, I read to the end."

Tell us about the friends you talk to about reading.

"Most of them are other English teachers. We're always recommending books to each other. Our conversations are on the shorter side, because everyone is busy. We do a lot of plot summarizing."

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