Brief Book Thoughts

4 06 2007

I didn’t get as much reading done as I would have liked to this weekend (my headache kept me down most of yesterday afternoon), but I just wanted to share a few notes about my reading progress.

1) I finished Sternberg’s The Life of a Fossil Hunter and it proved to be the most enjoyable book I’ve read in a while. While Sternberg’s tensions with native americans are apparent (they’re either a threat, an annoyance, or generally tolerated at the best of times), it is certainly a fine “adventure” book in the same vein as Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and the Owens’ Cry of the Kalahari. I also found Sternberg’s description of what fossilization is especially interesting, given that he shows a better general understanding of it in 1909 than I have seen in many recent books. His treatment of mosasaurs like Tylosaurus and Platecarpus has also inspired me to write my own post on the creatures, which will be submitted to one of the upcoming carnivals this week (I’m not sure whether it should fall under the Tangled Bank or Carnival of the Blue). Indeed, Sternberg’s descriptions of a Cretaceous Kansas often involved violent clashes between mosasaurs, blood dripping from their jaws, reflecting the “nature red in tooth and claw” model in contrast to Gosse’s more peaceful landscape in Omphalos. Sternberg’s rhetorical device also reminded me that at some point this summer I must read G.G. Simpson’s fictional work The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, in which the protagonist travels back in time to see Simpson’s ideas about dinosaurs verified.

2) I started reading Andrew Parker’s In the Blink of an Eye last weekend and I just can’t seem to get through it. I am interested in the topic, but Parker’s prose is rather dull and he spends far too much time explaining what he’s already said and what he’s going to say. Likewise, he brings in reconstructive examples from other areas of science (like modeling dinosaur footprints) but his forays into the side topics don’t seem to do justice to them or come together to support his main theme very well. I’m sure there’s plenty of good information in the book, but much like Palumbi’s The Evolution Explosion, O’Brien’s Tears of the Cheetah, and Simpson’s Life of the Past reading the work is more like a forced slog for my intellectual betterment than an enjoyable experience. Sure, there’s plenty of science books out there, but I’m beginning to see why so many people don’t bother. Hopefully I’ll finish the book before the end of the week, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable as Gould’s Wonderful Life.

3) As a consequence of my recent pondering about dinosaurs and culture, I decided to pick up Crichton’s Jurassic Park and I am a little more than halfway done with it. I haven’t actually read the book since middle-school, and I have to agree with Gould (in an essay contained in Dinosaur in a Haystack) that the film version, as visually spectacular as it was, really cheapened Crichton’s book. Looking at the book more than a decade after I first read it, however, a few things stood out. The first is that Crichton barely describes the dinosaurs in the book; usually color is mentioned, or the “pebbly skin,” but the reader is generally expected to know what a Tyrannosaurus or Velociraptor (=Deinonychus as a result of Gregory S. Paul’s attempted taxonomic revision in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World) is supposed to look like. This, in of itself, speaks to the latent popularity and familiarity with dinosaurs even before Jurassic Park hit it big.

It also became more apparent how much Crichton essentially took Jack Horner and renamed him Alan Grant and stuck him into the book. The Grant of the book is far more comfortable with children than his movie counterpart, and while he still doesn’t like computers he doesn’t seem as grumpy (or unhinged, as in the 3rd Jurassic Park film) as Sam Neill’s movie version. Ian Malcolm, by contrast, largely seems to be the same across the film and movie, although he doesn’t seem to be as insightful or intelligent as he initially seems. Sure, he’s right about dinosaurs getting off the island and size-distribution curves, but much of the time he seems simply to make assertions about chaos and frames the obvious with impressive sounding theories or effects. As others have pointed out, Malcolm seems to be the author’s voice, or at least the voice of conscience, in the book, but as the authors of The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World wrote, there isn’t much substance to Malcolm’s empirical claims. Still, the book is fun and I’ll likely finish it off this evening before heading back into the realm of non-fiction.


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4 responses

16 10 2009
Alan

I thought “Blink of an Eye” was interesting for going deeply into the evolution of sight and how it might have spurred further evolution. One of those Theory of Everything books. I enjoyed Peter Ward’s “Out of Thin Air” in a similar way, and he’s a better writer. “The Dechronization of Sam MacGruder” is fun. I’ve meant to read the Sternberg book, thanks for the recommendation.

10 05 2011
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18 07 2015
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