Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles, a book review

Insectopedia is a collection of twenty-six cleverly titled(1),  alphabetical essays on people and insects--generally, on how people view insects.

It is ambitious in scope, covering many cultures, peoples, and disciplines--Raffles visits farmers in Africa to talk about locusts, reads books by ancient Chinese philosophers, and talks with artists about their work, to give a small sampling.

It's erudite, carefully-researched--stunningly researched, and thoughtful. It has plenty of chances to say those wonderful words "I never thought about that!" or "Listen to this!" It is, or ought to be, everything I want in a non-fiction book.

And yet... I can't quite bring myself to rave about it. It is a deserving book, but it isn't a book I want to pass onto my  friends insisting "You have got to read this!"

There are two flaws. In all of the careful, culturally aware, anthropologically sound text, Raffles left out the sense of wonder that surely, surely must have been there when he started(2). Wasn't there a moment in there, somewhere, where he said "Wow! That's amazing!" Wasn't he ever struck dumb by the beauty of an unknown bug? There is a striking absence of humor, too. Granted, global warming is not funny. The radiation-induced mutations described in "Chernobyl" aren't going to make people giggle (at least, I hope they are not!), but I, poor frivolous creature that I am, can't help but think that somewhere, somehow, he must have laughed in the course of working on those 26 essays. Would it have hurt to show some of the odd, awkward moments that must have occurred in those journeys? The moments of laughter or surprise?

A lesser lack comes in the illustrations. Rather than use the shrunken, photocopy-quality images embedded in the text, Raffles should have opted for no illustrations whatsoever.  Looking at an image of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's paintings, this one purporting to be of mutated fruit fly eyes, I see only shapeless black blobs. This happens again, when Raffles is admiring Hoefnagel's sixteenth-century drawings describing the color, the shape, the points where real insect wings were used. There are recognizable shapes, this time, but they are broken, blurred, and I'd put them at less than a quarter of their original size. It would have been far better to stick to descriptions and not use such poor-quality reproductions.

If you're still curious after this reserved recommendation, take a look at google books. There are substantial chunks up for the cautious reader's perusal.

(1)Usually cleverly titled. I haven't quite forgiven him for titling the "W" essay  "The Sound of Global Warming." Surely that should have been "S" Or maybe, stretching things a bit, "G"? It's never a "W."

(2)I, at least, cannot imagine doing the staggering amount of work this book took without the sense that it was not only worth doing but wonderfully worth doing.

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