Plume, September 2009
The author, J. W. Rawles, as the blurb informs the reader of this very unusual book, is eminently suited to put together a compendium on survival—a topic guaranteed to throw every kind of reader into the most primitive of fears, fears that threaten to come true any day soon. He is the founder of survivalblog.com. He has accomplished this task with an authoritative stamp, providing adequate props that go on reinforcing the almost certain belief of the reader that The End of the World As We Know It or “TEOTWAWKI” is near. That’s a pet acronym of the author, liberally littering the 300-odd pages of this book, making it smack of a survival manual aimed at war veterans, Do It Yourselfers—all those who succeed against superhuman odds. Rawles succeeds in this unenviable task due to his unique combination of the right credentials, for he is an ex-Army officer; and the right background as the son of serious scientists associated with one of the topmost laboratories in the US. Add a pinch of the rare ability to write with conviction and lucidity, and to be able to sustain a taut level of expectation on the part of any reader, and we may be looking at a bestseller, a cult enlivening guide to combine the two extremes i.e. the fierce individuality of anyone who is convinced that When the Schumer Hits the Fan (WTSHTF, yet another colorful acronym), one may have to revert to being a caveman, and yet, paradoxically, depend upon a ”community” effort for our survival.
Never before, perhaps in our times, has such an oxymoronic reconciliation been offered to us with so much conviction, an overkill of highly accurate data, lists and lists of lists, resources, and qualified opinions that would wilt the most cynical eye in no time. Little wonder that Rawles claims to have a huge readership of committed followers of his survival blog. His book offers various doomsday scenarios and absolutely charming solutions, complete with choices and alternatives. One wouldn’t wonder if this book starts off an avalanche of imitations and wanna-be survival experts, painting more gruesome scenarios and suggesting what seems like astronomical figures of dollars to be spent on building one’s own forest castle, or a “retreat” far from the madding and clamoring crowds as the author suggests. The text comes off as gruel for the very imaginative, those who may see novels and stories hidden in this literal mine of ideas, suggestions, and “gyaan“(Sanskrit for collective knowledge that has accrued over centuries, transmitted through countless generations mainly by word to mouth or through books).
For a neutral assessment of the huge efforts put in by the author, the book has its own strengths and weaknesses; however, the former outweigh the latter by a huge margin. One of its crystal clear strengths is the author’s obsession with precision and a clinical eye for relevant details. At no point is there ambiguity, jargon, nor gobbledygook that is found invariably growing abundantly around the slim ideas and slices of information that could only be labeled as life saving, TEOTWAWKI or not. Anyone with the most basic DIY abilities and well-preserved copies of Popular Mechanics will bear this observation out, and may add reinforcement. America is an endless source of delightful tools—other DIY enthusiasts around the globe will vouch for this claim—and James Wesley Rawles seems to throw open technical and tactical treasures with an insight and intuition that would truly warm the hearts of other aficionados.
The reader may further be enlightened by some very balanced views on technical issues that the average person on the streets is never exposed to. For instance, wind power generators require a lot of maintenance; and there are a host of problems in long term storage of very fundamental things like grains, sustainable food items, even gasoline and other related fossil fuels. Even if the TEOTWAWKI doesn’t occur—for we have been warned by hundreds of misguided prophets of doom over the last half a century or so, and we are still mercifully alive and kicking—this book would be a pretty authoritative collection of highly practical information and data on issues that are rarely brought out for discussion or enlightenment. Another strength of this survival manual is its unequivocal manner and economy of words, completely lacking in flowery phrases or poetic allusions. When one is focused on survival, even a lighthearted anecdote seems completely out of place. Hence the businesslike somberness of tone suits the main theme very well. The rather bald language, devoid of tautology and its knife-sharp, acerbic pithiness greatly suit the serious undertones. Thus the reader doesn’t feel like a freak at some doomsday prophesy show, nor like a brainwashed follower who has switched off his or her brain.
There indeed are a few flaws or slack portions of the book, where too many lists and bland passages induce a sense of heavy monotony. The reader is not likely to remain captivated from the first page to the last. This survival expert thus has allowed the reader to get buried under a landslide of information, data, and compilations that could have been slightly less distracting if these were listed in an index or as addenda, rather than forming the main body of text. What saves the book from tumbling into possible oblivion is its power of the pithy observation, the obsessive impetus on precision, and the implied high fidelity of resources. All in all, the book possesses the charm of science fiction with the accurate efficacy of a medical handbook.