Amateur Book Review: Tribe

Are you a curmudgeon about society? Has social media left you empty? Do you feel socially isolated, even with all the people who “like” your posts? Tribe is the book for you!

But for real, Tribe is worth reading. It’s about our desire to be a part of a tribe – an actively engaged community that’s loyal, generous, and cooperative. Sebastian Junger explores different kinds of tribes, from indigenous tribes to military platoons. He writes on the irony that adversity is more likely to bring people together and laments our disconnected society in the Western world today.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I haven’t belonged to a really solid “tribe” in a long time, not since my study abroad in college. It doesn’t help that I’ve been in a more transient stage of life, along with my friends. This book really spoke to me.

Here’s the bad and the good:

The Bad

Junger gets a little reductive in his interpretation of data and romanticizes other ways of life a little too much. While I think it’s wise and useful to learn from other cultures, it can really make you cynical about your own culture and it can suck all the joy out of life. I felt like he was critical of Western civilization and how disconnected it is to the point where it felt like there were no alternatives whatsoever. He didn’t offer any solutions, he just criticized. It’s a little discouraging.

The Good

The fact is simple: we need strong social connections. I have always thrived in an environment where my social circle is strong and I feel like I belong. I liked that Junger explores that. He is varied in the experiences he writes about, and given his time as a military journalist, he’s far more likely to write about the military. The military is an area of life I’m pretty unfamiliar with and I appreciate the perspective. He shares constant, endearing stories of heroism and sacrifice – people who rose to the challenge and helped other people survive. I loved his constant call for unity, for sacrifice.

The ending packs a PUNCH. In it he tells the story of Martin Bauman, a man who ran a job placement firm in New York City. When the company fell on hard times, he asked his employees if they’d be willing to take a 10% reduction in their pay in order to keep their jobs. Then, he secretly went without a salary for a whole year so he wouldn’t have to fire anyone.

This was my favorite story in the whole book – it was by far the most memorable. In another life, perhaps I would live in an indigenous tribe where the sense of community is marrow-deep and loyalty and generosity is fierce. But this is the world I live in. And so I need to hear stories of people who care about each other in this life, in this world, because I can’t become hopeless. I know these people exist – I work with them, I’m related to them, and I’m married to one of them.

So if you can’t be arsed to read this book, the next time you’re in Barnes and Noble, open up the book to the very ending and read the final story about Martin Bauman. The last paragraph has haunted me:

“[Bauman] clearly understood that belonging to society requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice gives back way more than it costs. […] That sense of solidarity is at the core of what it means to be human and undoubtedly helped deliver us to this extraordinary moment in our history.

It may also be the only thing that allows us to survive it.”

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