"Everyday Survival" by Laurence Gonzales

Brian Gongol

There are four books buried deep inside "Everyday Survival: Why smart people do stupid things": A wide-ranging travelogue, a broad essay on cosmology and anthropology, a political broadside about global warming, and a book about decision-making. The cover matter sells it as a book about decision-making, but that is actually the least-developed of the four subjects. That's unfortunate. The travelogue was almost utterly unnecessary (nobody needs that much description about the author's trip inside a deep cave), and the conclusions the author has already reached regarding global warming are such that one can hardly see the point in writing about it at all (he's deeply fatalistic about the damage already done). The meanering exploration on cosmology and anthropology might make an interesting book in its own right, if given the right focus -- the author spends a lot of time acknowledging how much his scientist father knew about the subject, and how little of the actual understanding he truly inherited. But it's the question of why we make stupid decisions and how we ought to avoid them that really offers something useful and fairly original. Unfortunately, that subject -- which is what the subtitle alone promised -- all too often gets developed only far enough for the author to take a global-warming detour. Were it sufficiently developed in its own right, as the subject so rightly deserves, "Everyday Survival" would have been much richer and much more rewarding. Unfortunately, as four books knottily tied together as one, it fails to satisfyingly deliver on any individual premise.

As an audiobook, the narrator serves up a listenable rendition of the text, but someone should have told him to stop trying to mimic accents. Just because Benoit Mandelbrot is being quoted doesn't mean the narrator has to put on his best Pepe Le Pew impression to read it. Other impressions are similarly over-the-top and unnecessary and are a serious distraction from the text. Also, the frequent references to footnotes, especially when they're nothing more than URLs or book references, are a disruption to the flow of the book and should have been omitted.

Verdict: An adequate book, but the content doesn't really deliver what's promised by the title and subtitle.