Read: “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers

24 Mar 2010

I read this nearly straight through, which I almost never do. Zeitoun is about an amazing character—extraordinary enough to be worth writing about, but ordinary enough you can relate to him.


Don’t read on if you don’t want to know anything about what happens. Although I’ll try to keep plot spoiling to a minimum.

The way the authorities acted in this book is a perfect example of “elite panic”—how the elites imagine that things will descend into an “animalistic state” (as New Orleans’ mayor Ray Nagin put it) once the authorities aren’t around.

As Rebecca Solnit argues convincingly in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, what usually happens in disasters is that people come together and help each other out. In any disaster, the first responders are almost always ordinary people, because they happen to be on site when the disaster strikes.

That’s Zeitoun—one of these people who went around, rescuing others. But then, seemingly out of nothing other than fear, the authorities imagined that he and others were looters or terrorists.

You can read more about elite panic here, in two articles from January, that talk about elite panic and the perception of looting, with the Haiti earthquake in mind:

“‘Elite panic’ can slow aid in disasters”, Charlotte Observer

“Haiti, Disaster Sociology, Elite Panic, and Looting”, Resilience Science blog

But first, read “>Zeitoun, because more than any of these other books or articles, it will give you a visceral sense for what’s at stake—our very notions of community and humanity.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »