Gulliver’s Travels: Yahoos Still Reign Supreme

Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, has been on my list of books to read for a very, very long time. Possibly decades. It’s one that I’d start, get a few pages into, and never go back. And thus the quandary I find myself in for this review. Should everybody read this book, as Neil deGrasse Tyson himself, suggests? Absolutely. Do I think it’s reasonable to expect people to sit down and read this book? Not really.

The book is phenomenal not only for the story itself and all the adventures that happen Lemuel Gulliver, but also for the incredible insight into humanity that can only come from such a brilliant satire. That said, the writing is DULL. Thus my oft failed attempts to read it. So how did I finally get through the book? I listened to it.

Listening to Gulliver’s Travels allowed me to get through a book that I routinely struggled with, but the disadvantage of listening is how much I missed because I’d get distracted driving or lost in thought (and technical issues had me reticent to stop it unless absolutely necessary). So there’s a lot in this very dense book I missed, which makes writing the intelligent, thought-provoking review this book deserves nearly impossible.

Another difficulty in reviewing the book is that I know, even if I’d carefully read every word, there’d still be a lot I missed because I’m so unfamiliar with history at that time. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t have a clue England was ruled by a queen in the early 1700s, and without knowing such general history, the specifics of politics and culture are also lost. I suspect much of the humor fell on deaf ears. This is a book that would likely benefit from being read with/for a class.

So all that said, what was my take on this book? It’s an important reminder of how much humanity has changed, as well as how much we’re all exactly the same. That really sums everything up in a nutshell.

My meager understanding of history has led me to believe that morality is like a pendulum swinging back and forth. It hit an extreme conservative side in the Victorian era, and then swung far back to the other side in the last 50 years or so. It’s easy to forget that before the Victorian era, people and literature could get quite bawdy. So I was surprised and amused by all the references to bodily functions that pop up in this book. Certainly putting out fires by pissing on them is something today’s uncouth population (meaning just about all of us) would find entertaining. Even more surprising were the many references to nudity, especially when Gulliver is among the giants. Giant breasts and nipples are apparently not as attractive when one is smaller than said anatomy.

The political philosophy was also interesting, and again, it was easy to tie today’s political situation to Swift’s satirical version. We just haven’t changed that much. People in power still do absurd things to maintain their power, while people without still do absurd things to gain power. I suspect this topic is one that a scholar of that time period could wax poetic on for pages and pages. Without knowing more specifics of the time period, I missed out.

Then there were the Yahoos. The Yahoos are the main reason to read this book. We’re all Yahoos and that’s not a compliment. We are all still the same savage, uncouth, un-empathetic, violent yahoos that Swift wrote about over 300 years ago. The only way to fix our flaws is to understand them, and Swift does his best to point out every flaw in the most comedic way possible: by comparing us to horses.

If you haven’t read this book yet, I recommend trying to find some way to read it in a class or get the annotated version, and try to get more out of it than I did. If you find the writing style too dull, give up trying to read it and just listen to it. The book was written when novels were still in their infancy, so there are certain characteristics of his writing style that have since been abandoned and for good reason. But it’s an important book to read, both for its literary and historical significance.

Perhaps if more of us read the book, we’d all stop being such Yahoos.

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