CBR11bingo: The Collection
Look at that awesome cover! It has a rhino on it, for heaven’s sake, which was enough for me to pick it up and look closer. I had been browsing books in the Quadrant Book Mart, one of my favorite little spots in Easton, PA, where I was visiting with my family two Christmases ago, when I spotted that intriguing image. Something about used book stores combined with travel makes me want to test airline luggage weight limits by stocking up on hard cover editions.
I wasn’t familiar with David Quammen, but according the dust jacket, he is a freelance writer who started writing for Outside magazine in 1981 and who wrote a column called “Natural Acts,” about any topic loosely related to the natural world, for the next 15 years. This book, per the dust jacket, “brings together twenty-six of [his] most thoughtful and engaging essays from that column.” It further goes on to describe Quammen’s prose as “lucid, penetrating, and often quirkily idiosyncratic.”
Idiosyncratic, perhaps. Lucid. . .might be a stretch, but ok. Penetrating. Now I’m gonna have to put the brakes on.
For nature essays to irritate me, there really has to be something special happening. The majority of the twenty-six essays were tolerable, but Quammen was hardly transporting me with his prose or charming the socks off me with his insightful comments. Rather, I sensed smugness in his attitude. In an essay about nutmeg entitled “The Narcotic of Empire,” he references the island of Run, a tiny island off of Indonesia. On a boat trip out to the Banda Islands, he asks the tour guide whether they were going there.
Going where? he asked.
To the island of Run, I said. That place. Right over there. I might have added: to the world’s most inconspicuous yet eloquent symbol of changing commodity values and myopic diplomacy.
At first glance, this is a perfectly fine bit of writing, maybe even clever, but every essay in this book gives the impression that Quammen is having a private joke with himself. I fought that impression initially, but every essay left me with the same feeling of Quammen considering himself smarter than his readers, and certainly smarter than his non-readers.
Having been given free rein by Outside to write about whatever he wanted as long as there was some tenuous connection to nature, the author wrote on a wide variety of subjects. Topics range from a study of unusual animal penises to the history of the American lawn to our close genetic relationship with chimpanzees. I can’t stress enough that every one of these topics interests me. (Yes, even the sexy lawn topic. Don’t judge.)
Drought-tolerant landscaping. Work it, baby!
In spite of my inclination to be curious, I kept getting turned off by the author’s self-satisfaction. For example, on the lawn topic: I am a self-proclaimed proponent of native plants. My Southern California backyard comprises drought-tolerant flora that have never been sullied by pesticide, and my front yard horrifies my neighbors with its lack of manicured greenness. But in spite of the author and I being in agreement on this, he gets under my skin when he says, “In place of the mower and the Weed Whacker and the rake and the sprinkler and the spray dispenser for pesticides, I see a folding aluminum lawn chair, an all-weather end table, a pair of sunglasses, a broad-brimmed hat, and a hardback copy of Leaves of Grass.” Ugh, yes, I really needed to know you’re a Walt Whitman fan. Thanks for waving your literary credentials at me.
Speaking of which, he dedicates an essay to a critique of Henry David Thoreau and Walden. First of all, that is really stretching the parameters of a nature essay. Second, I’ve been lectured to about Walden by greater literary minds than yours, Quammen, so stick to your area of expertise. I also gather from several comments in various essays that the author is a Luddite who doesn’t own a TV, and of course he is proud of it. I can only be relieved that these essays are from the 80s and 90s; otherwise, I’m sure we’d be subjected to the author’s pride at not being on social media or never having seen an episode of Game of Thrones.
For the record, I didn’t watch Game of Thrones either. I just think it’s an odd thing to brag about.
All of this was mildly annoying, but what really made my blood boil, what downgraded this review from 3 stars to 2, was the title essay, “The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature as Concocted, Nature as Found.” The title rhinoceros refers to Albrecht Dürer’s famous woodcut, because what’s a little art history between friends? For some reason, though, the author starts complaining about nature videos and how they are available at Blockbuster (which really dates these essays, but that’s fine). He writes, “They offer also The Smile of the Walrus, from Jacques Cousteau, to warm your den at the touch of a few buttons. They provide Lions of the African Night, from National Geographic, to roar at you on command. And, sure, they’ve got rhinos if you want rhinos. You can go birdwatching in Botswana without suffering the jet lag or the shots. You can get a zoo-visitor experience without even crossing town to the zoo. It’s the age of take-out, and now the zoo comes to you, each beast caged tractably in a plastic cassette.”
Excuse me, Mr. Globe-Trotting, Self-Satisfied Asshole. Are you really taking shots at nature videos now? I’m not talking about the Disney “documentaries” like the one where they enticed lemmings to jump off of cliffs, thus fueling a long-held myth about lemming behavior. But ALL nature videos? Sure, they are edited to make them more interesting to the viewer, because nobody is going to sit on their couch for 3 weeks watching a snow leopard not appear. Quammen suggests that nature videos teach people to “take nature for granted, as just another form of human amusement, like C-Span or Monday Night Football.” As someone who volunteers much of my free time talking to people about wildlife, I can tell you that children who watch nature videos are more passionate, knowledgeable, and respectful to animals than those who don’t. Often, that passion rubs off on the parents, who learn from the kids. So stop acting like you’re better than everybody else because you travel around the world and sit in swamps not watching TV, waiting for nature to happen in front of you. You know who doesn’t look down on his audience? This guy:
Sir David Attenborough is my co-pilot.
So that’s it folks. Writing this review has made me realize how annoyed I truly was at this collection. Nevertheless, Quadrant Book Mart is a fine book shop to visit if you’re ever in Easton, PA. They serve some breakfast food and hot chocolate, plus the Crayola Factory is nearby, so you can make a day of it!