Book Club Discussion Transcript: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

We hope you had a good time discussing Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes with your book club—or had a good time reading it on your own and thinking about it!

Below the cut is the transcript for our own Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes discussion. Maybe you’ll agree with our opinions, or maybe you’ll think we got it all wrong. Either way, we’d love to hear from you in the comments if you found our discussion interesting!

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Book Club Questions: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977—with his wife and three young children—intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding. The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live—so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them. 

Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.

Colleen and I were both pretty pleased that we picked this title as a book club book, since there was a lot going on which we both wanted to try and unpack during our discussion. Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes raises a lot of questions for a Western reader, and in many different areas outside of just linguistics. Our experience of the memoir/linguistics-for-beginners story Everett is telling definitely benefitted from our ability to work together in navigating our own understanding of the concepts Everett introduced during our book club meeting.

I highly recommend this book, as it introduces many challenging concepts about language, culture, and perception for a Western audience, without being overly academic and terminology-laden. I would also recommend you read the book with the intention of discussing it with someone else, if possible, as your brain will benefit from being forced to grapple with the ideas Everett is introducing and to put your thoughts into words.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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Book Club Prep: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

Our next book club book will be Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett! This memoir covers the thirty years during which Everett spent time living with the Pirahã, a group of Amazonian native people, and the many lessons he learned as he struggled to become fluent in their very difficult and unique language. Although he initially began his work as a missionary with the goal of translating the Bible into Pirahã, Everett’s personal views and understanding of the world around him shifted significantly during his thirty years learning both a new language and a new way of thinking from the Pirahã.

Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977—with his wife and three young children—intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding. The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live—so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them. 

Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.

Highlight white text for content warnings: alcohol addiction, animal cruelty or animal death, threats of assault, death or dying, racism, giant effing snakes

For those of you looking for hosting ideas, here are some easy snacks and beverages you and your book club compatriots can enjoy while discussing Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. And for those of you who are looking for something more beyond the book itself, here are some articles and books which either tie into Everett’s memoir or expand upon its themes and content.

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