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Monster of God

Monster of God by David Quammen. I was happy to find this book in the library, not only because it lets me add a “Q” category to the Author Index for this book log (recommendations of authors whose surnames begin with “U,” “V,” “X,” and “Y” are welcome in the comments), but because it’s been highly praised as one of the best science books of the year.

This book falls into the general category of “Smart People Books,” a subset of non-fiction in which a Smart Person sets out to explore all the various aspects of some particular phenomenon. Examples previously logged here would include Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris and Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf (books and bibliophiles), Alexander Wolff’s Big Game, Small World (basketball), and Jon Ronson’s Them (nutjobs). Bonus points are awarded these books for travel to exotic locales, and erudite references to literary works. The main point of a Smart Person Book is to draw the reader’s attention to otherwise unconsidered details of the phenomenon in question, or to point out odd parallels between different manifestations. This can be fascinating, or just plain silly, depending on how strained the comparisons are.

Monster of God takes up the question of large predators, specifically “man-eating” predators, and scores very highly on the Smart People scale. Quammen travels the globe to study predators in their natural habitats– lions in India, crocdiles in Australia, bears in Romania, and tigers in Siberia– and compares them to literary models ranging from religious texts (the book of Job) to ancient oral traditions (Gilgamesh and Beowulf) to the local multiplex (the eponymous Alien).

On the whole, it’s very well done. The travel bits are engaging, and he does a nice job of sketching the history of the areas he studies with an eye toward the impact of history on predator populations. His sketches of the various eccentric characters he meets on his travels are quite good, and he does a reasonable job of laying out the issues of population biology without making the details too numbing. (I can’t speak for the accuracy of these bits, as I Am Not A Biologist, but nothing he said about the animals struck me as ludicrous.)

There are some flaws, though. The literary parallels range from slightly weak to ridiculously strained (the bit where he tries to draw a comparison between Nicolae Ceausescu (a “megalomaniacal little Communist martinet who required underlings to load his rifles and stretch his pelts”) and either Gilgamesh or Beowulf is just silly). His conclusions are also fairly unsurprising– large predators in the wild are vanishing, humans are to blame, and this is Sad. The one slightly unexpected conclusion is the suggestion that regulated hunting and trade in predator parts may be the best method to preserve these species (though he later gloomily concludes that this is not enough to save them).

My biggest complaint with the book is slightly petty: seldom have I read a book that so desperately cries out for illustrations, and fails to provide them. There are maps of the relevant bits of the world, but the animals themselves are described only in text. A few photographs mixed in with the text would be a dramatic improvement. (This is nowhere more ridiculous than when he writes of the Paleolithic paintings in Chauvet Cave: “Wherever the cave is described or discussed, in articles or books, you can expect to see the Lion Panel reproduced.” “Except here,” he fails to add… Happily, the cave has a slick official web page, and less flashy but more helpful collections of images have been posted by private citizens.)

I’m told that it suffers somewhat in comparison to his earlier The Song of the Dodo, but I haven’t read that, so I can’t say. I do wish I’d picked it up at a point when I had more time to devote to reading it– it’s not well served by being read in small chunks before bed or between interruptions by a needy dog– but all in all, this is a book worth reading.

(Originally posted to The Library of Babel.)

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