Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What you can learn from book reviews

During both the six-hour flight there and back, StraightMan sat across the aisle from me, with the two kiddos and a portable DVD player. (Mind you, he owed me, after three weeks away at his NEH seminar...) This allowed me the luxury of catching up on back issues of two of my weekly reads, plus reading half of a novel on my kindle. I just finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last night, and this afternoon downloaded The Girl who Played with Fire, which by all accounts is even better. Both Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire are page-turners, with commentaries on financial journalism, Swedish society and politics, and gender, which become issued as blocks of discourse from the mouths of the characters. Rather awkward, but the commentaries themselves can be interesting. As a lapsed fictionista who has worked in journalism, I admit that I am hooked. The books are a bit of change, too, from my usual fare in non-fiction.

I admit that sometimes I never bother reading the books themselves, but I enjoy reading the reviews of them: Not just thumbs up or thumbs down, but essays that contextualize the book and its subject matter and the author's approach, or read them alongside other books. I sometimes feel that academic journals ought to look more to The New Yorker and The Nation for models on the kinds of book reviews that they themselves might publish.

In fact, The Nation published a cover story, "The Death and Life of the Book Review," in its June 21 issue (which I have not finished reading), which suggests that the state of the book review today is linked not only to the Internet and the book publishing industry, but also the future of newspaper journalism. It seems also to me that the significance of the book review today is that it is arguably one of the few remaining public outlets of ideas - not as punditry or man-on-the-street opining, but to paraphrase The Nation, with "scrutiny, the deliberate, measured analysis of literary and intellectual questions without obvious or easy answers."

Which brings me to something I learned from a book review in the May 10 issue of The Nation: A review of two books about the conservation movement, its origins and its present, one being Mark Barrow's Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology, and the other being Caroline Fraser's Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution.

I confess that I am considerably less interested in the latter than the former, being skeptical, even cynical, about naive do-goodism, of which the title smacks. Indeed, the review confirms that I am not wrong: Do-gooders especially ought not to be naive, especially about their history.

The review begins with a vignette, borrowed from Barrow, about Thomas Jefferson's scientific and philosophical interest in the woolly mammoth, which he believed had not become extinct, but survived somewhere beyond, possibly in the American West: "For Jefferson the patriot, America's natural advantages counterbalanced Europe's prodigious cultural patrimony. So in picking a fight with the Old World, he no doubt found it prudent to recruit a massive beast like the mammoth to his side." So, the reviewer, Ari Kelman, introduces us to the political history of American conservation efforts, in particular endangered species protection, which Barrow traces in his book through the 1970's. "This high-water mark lingered until the mid 1990's, when Congress, under Newt Gingrich, began rolling back environmental regulations."

Part of the history is the embrace of animals (albeit endangered) simultaneous with the rejection of other people. Kelman notes Barrow's examination of naturalists at the turn of the 20th century, a number of whom were interested in "positive eugenics" and drew parallels between the fate of animals and of people:

For many concerned onlookers, steeped in Jeffersonian and Turnerian intellectual currents, the West served as a synecdoche for the United States, and the imperiled bison served as a synecdoche for the West. If the rugged bison died out, then so too, they worried, might America, a nation they felt was being feminized by an economy that alienated workers from the land; radicalized by labor activists preaching class warfare in exploding cities; and mongrelized by ostensibly unassimilable immigrants (Catholics, Asians and Jews).

In 1886, the response, as Kelman describes, was to "embark on a scientific expedition to shoot or capture some of the remaining beasts." The bison were treated not much differently than the human population of the Great Plains - hunted first, then "saved" and collected. It is worth remembering that salvage anthropology, as well as salvage zoology, was practiced at this time in history.

Others better versed than I might be familiar already with this history. As a novice, I think as often as not, such causes as endangered species protection become presented as self-evident: Ethical and moral values that are irrefutable in any time and place. So, I think it is significant to be reminded that the sentiments now rallied around extinction and conservation themselves have histories. Knowing these histories, and making them known, will not undermine the impulse - to create the kind of nature that we think we ought to have - but hopefully lead to asking the questions that ought to be asked and producing better-informed answers.

If, indeed, the continuance of species is at stake, then it seems to me that we need to take the long view, both into the future and the past.

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