Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales

This book is both fascinating and educational. Gonzales shares many stories about survivors, starting with his father, who rode a wounded B-17 down to the ground from 24,000 feet during World War II (in one of the best prologues I've ever read). While the storytelling is vivid, the focus of the book is analysis. Gonzales describes how different parts of the brain react to stress (this part of the book requires some concentration) and how this influences who survives and who doesn't. He explains how certain accidents are "normal", why training and technology fail to save people, and what critical mistake people make when they get lost. There are interesting anecdotes galore, and Gonzales even adds a healthy dose of ancient wisdom from the Tao Te Ching and Stoic philosophers to show that some of these ideas have stood the test of time. The author switches back and forth between stories and theory, a style that kept me from getting bored with either one. This isn't a how-to book, although the appendix attempts to distill the text into easy-to-remember advice.

Before I gush about a book, I usually check out the negative reviews on Amazon.com to see if I'm totally off-base. Most of the bad reviews of Deep Survival come from people who just don't get it. Some expected a how-to book or a simple collection of survival stories. Others whined that Gonzales writes about himself too much even though he makes it pretty clear in the prologue that he will. His personal stories are brief, and they usually illustrate how even someone who should know better can make mistakes. A few say the book isn't scientific enough, but it clearly is written for a popular audience. Gonzales cites enough sources to satisfy anyone who wants to delve deeper into a particular subject.

One of the themes of this book is that survival isn't only about wilderness survival; it is essential in all aspects of life, such as surviving financial setbacks, the loss of a loved one, divorce, or any other disappointment. Indeed, I found many parallels between the survivors in this book and Lance Armstrong's survival of cancer. For that reason, I would recommend Deep Survival to anyone and everyone. Reading it won't make you a survivor, but it will put you on the right track.

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