A few months ago, I borrowed a book I found in my parents’ home. I needed something to read, and the description “A Harvard scientist’s astonishing journey into the secret societies of Haitian Voodoo, zombis and magic” seemed interesting enough to warrent taking this book. I had my expectations set pretty low though – I didn’t expect to be interested enough to finish this one.
I was pleasantly surprised. “The Serpent and the Rainbow” was for me an unexpectedly educating book, and even though it was non-fiction, it had enough of a plot to keep me reading.
The most valuable thing I got out of this book was more knowledge about the Haitian revolution. That one was so bloody that it gives a whole new meaning to the word “bloody”. The Egyptian revolution currently taking place pales in comparison. Before that maybe I vaguely knew something about the Haitian revolution (I recall a short bit from “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman), but I really didn’t know a lot. For that alone, the book is worth reading.
The book contains insights into other subjects as well. These include Voodoo itself, some Psychology, Anthropology, and even the life of “Wandering academics” such as Wade Davis – the author of this book. One strong point I remember was the trade-off that we make as city dwellers: we give up the knowledge of the nature around us and in return we get the knowledge and skills required to navigate our complicated world: “at forty paces for example, their hunters can smell animal urine and distinguish on the basis of scent alone which out of dozens of possible species left it”. We gave up that skill along with many others – when we chose the city over the village and the wilderness.
Lastly, the book was also especially interesting to me as a family relative of mine recently was part of the Israeli mission to Haiti, and it was good knowing a bit more about this place that so recently suffered yet another great turmoil.
After reading this book, I read about it in Wikipedia, where I learned about criticism of the writer. That’s actually good to know, but I’m unable to conclusively decide either way. In any case, even if I accept the criticism I still think that the book is an excellent, educating and captivating read.