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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I'm Reading: Between Man and Beast

Last month I listened to the new history of science nonfiction title Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm by Monte Reel

I was drawn to this book because I enjoy history of science particularly in this time period (mid-19th Century).  Actually to be more specific, I really enjoy the mid-19th Century as a setting in general, but for nonfiction of any kind, it is a time period I return to frequently. But when it is a history of science title, I love how this time period marks the crisis point in science.  It is when religion finally lost out to science.  It is when the scientists who went in the field, buckled down and spent their lives studying and experimenting with the actual world in front of them and stopped using the Bible as their source material.  This was also a time when you no loner had to have a high social standing to be considered a serious scientists. Provable scientific method was finally beginning to be what mattered in the world of science.

I knew all this about the time period going in and not only did Between Man and Beast support this, but it also presents a scenario even crazier than a 21st Century person could believe if it were not so well supported with documented research by Reel.

Time for a few particulars (even though the essence of the book is really captured above). At the center of the book is the life and work of Paul Du Chaillu, a mysterious figure who lived in and traveled throughout Eastern Africa and was one of the first Europeans to see a gorilla.  Reel was researching the time period, Darwin, and the obsession in popular culture of the gorilla during this time and found mentions of Paul.  The more he looked into Paul's past, the more intriguing and unbelievable the story became.

There are long descriptions of Paul's trips into the jungle where he observed and killed gorillas.  There is time spent on Paul's life in London trying to work his way into the upper class scientific community, but it is with Paul's return trip to Africa and Reel's discovery of Paul's true identity that the story really picks up.

Reel jumps around quite a bit in his storytelling style, but Paul is always at the center.  Even when Reel veers off into a longer discussion of other people, he eventually brings it back around again to Paul.  This made the book move at a compelling pace.  It also adds some foreshadowing which also makes this well researched history story move briskly. As Reel introduces rivals and enemies to Paul, the reader knows problems are coming, but with all of the crazy accusations that get thrown around (in the name of "science"), it is hard to imagine what bad thing is around the corner.  You read on just to find out what they will throw at Paul next, how he will handle it, and what the outcome will be.

The good thing in reading Between Man and Beast is that we know that science will win.  We know that Apes really do walk on the ground, we know that evolution is true, and we know that the scientist who goes into the field, collects specimens, and conducts actual research will be taken more seriously than the rich guy in his armchair back home. But going back to that pivotal, emotional, and stressful point where the fate of science hung in the balance made for a great read.

A note on the Audio:  I listened to Between Man and Beast (as I do with most of the history of science books I read). Click here to listen to a snippet. It is narrated by Bob Walter.  I checked to see what else he has read.  I have apparently not listened to him before but nonfiction seems to be his specialty.  I found his narration to be clear, commanding, and unobtrusive (good for nf in my opinion).  He also added the right intonations to note the important foreshadowing aspects I mentioned above. Walter helped the keep the brisk pace going.  He probably made the book more compelling for me than I would have made it for myself.  But again, it was subtle.

Three Words That Describe This Book: dramatic, compelling, well researched

Readalikes:  Books I have read which are also dramatic, compelling and well researched nonfiction with a similar time period setting that I would suggest are:

You can click on the titles for detailed reviews of these books and even more readalike options.

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