Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

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Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: In 1977, Daniel Everett moved with his young family into the Amazonian jungle to help a remote tribe find God. Instead, enlightenment comes to him through his studies of the Pirahas and their intriguing language and culture. A highly-readable anthropological, linguistic and spiritual journey.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: November 2008
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846680304

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I nearly didn't select this book to review as I thought it was about snakes - I was expecting some kind of Bear Grylls* adventure travel survival book for the Amazon. How-to-survive-in-the-jungle-armed-with-only-a-sharp-stick-and-a-six-pack sort of thing. Fortunately, I looked into the content a little further, and found that this is an anthropological and linguistic study of the life of the Pirahas, a tribe living in the remote Amazonian jungle. The title comes from the fact that the Pirahas don't have a word for goodnight – their nearest equivalent when they are leaving someone for the night is Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

What we have in Don't Sleep, There A Snakes is both a fascinating story, told by a writer whose life has irrevocably changed due to his encounter with the Pirahas, and a volume that raises some interesting questions about language acquisition and spirituality. Now, if that still sounds off-putting, the theories on language development don't get in the way of Everett's many adventures with the Pirahas. The author is so likeable, warm, funny and self-deprecating, that it's like reading a letter from a wise friend.

There are some challenging ideas about language acquisition postulated. I found them fascinating though not straightforward to grasp, but if you simply want an enjoyable read about a most unusual life and meet a most unusual culture, there is still much to enjoy in Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes. If you enjoy reading about language evolution, it's a huge bonus to learn about language isolates such as that spoken by the Pirahas. It's one for anthropology fans, too, with many stories revealing attitudes and customs among the Pirahas which will be surprising and intriguing to Westerners.

Everett is initially shocked at how indifferent the Pirahas seem when his wife and daughter are dangerously ill, shouting after him to bring supplies when he sets off on a nightmare trip to find medical help. He eventually comes to learn that this attitude is part of their stoicism and sturdy independence. The Pirahas have deep feelings, but to survive, they know life is hard and they strive to resolve our own problems.

I can't say it's always the easiest read, but you will reap the rewards. It's very much a book for anyone who has ever struggled to learn a language (particularly a minority language), as Everett labours with translating the Bible into Piraha – until he realises it is futile. The Pirahas don't want to hear about Jesus. They haven't met him, and they don't want to be saved. Quite a challenge for a missionary, as Everett is when he starts working with them! After many years, Elliot finds that the Pirahas and their culture change him, not the other way round, as he reassesses his attitudes to language, religion, life and death.

I can heartily recommend this book – if you are not a language nut, you can skip the sections where Everett ponders on Chomsky's theories of language development - but if you are, you will find it fascinating, and there is so much else to enjoy in Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes. I'd love to quote the many stories contained in its pages, but you should read the book instead. So many documentaries and travelogues that we watch and read these days seems to be based on the flimsiest of research and with an eye on catching the latest trend, making it instantly disposable. With this volume, I felt privileged to have been given a glimpse into Everett's hard-won insights, gleaned over many years, without having had to sleep among the snakes!

Thanks to the publisher, Profile Books, for providing the Bookbag with this amazing story.

If you enjoyed this book, you'll find another fascinating clash of cultures in Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All by Christina Thompson.

  • I don't really know anything about Bear Grylls, but his testosterone-packed name has invaded my consciousness. If he doesn't write survival books, he should.

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Buy Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett at


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