Your Life's Work Makes Any Cocktail Party That Much More Interesting

I think everyone has at least two minutes at a cocktail party. Which is to say, there's a brief grace period when someone asks "And what do you do?" and you go on explaining how you oversee document maintenance for a department in the [insert city here] office of a multi-national firm, and then that person nods and asks some pertinent followup question, which you answer thoughtfully yet vaguely. This repeats until the other party runs out of questions, but I think everyone on the planet gets about two minutes at least. It doesn't have to be a full-on cocktail party, either. It could be a kegger. Or even some sort of opening event with free cheese and white-or-red wine.

Those of us fortunate enough to have a really interesting resume or life experience can hold court much longer than two minutes: Maybe seven, eight, even 14 minutes, until a drink is empty and one's palm has long since cut waterlogged napkins into pulpy cookies, or given up entirely and bunched them up between the ring and pinky finger. Pulpy masses of napkin sticking to palms is a terrible image. Suffice it to say, which is to say, no one stands around forever just soaking up war stories, anecdotes or off-the-record tales.

Which is also to say, there's a genre of book where academics make a case for how whatever it is he or she studies applies in ways large and small to most of our lives — hopefully large, but even small will do. It's not Team of Rivals or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, because that comes much, much later. It's more like a paperback supervised parole in, or back in, the real world.

Not that that's a bad thing — people in academia and those in the outside world should know what each other does for a living. It can't ever hurt to be better able to explain a theoretical concept, even if it gives you a headache. Your poor mother deserves to know what your weird postdoctoral advisor has you cooped up for all winter break. I think all academics should be required to write one piece of popular history, or a Nova special, or blow up balloons or make bubbles at a children's birthday party. Society would be the richer for it.

Hal Herzog's Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals is like blowing bubbles a children's birthday party. Large, luxurious, freeflowing, earnest bubbles made from a wand unlike any you've seen. Which is to say, Herzog is really trying to captivate you with anthrozoological issues. "Anthrozoology," simply put, is the study of how animals and humans interact.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat has a higher bar to overcome in part because no one has really heard of anthrozoology. There are no real departments of anthrozoology; an anthrozoologist seems sort of like a cross between a psychologist and an anthropologist, though Herzog notes that some veterinarians, historians and sociologists count themselves as anthrozoologists.

Some was one of our book club choices because the person who suggested it noted, in part, how children seem hardwired to love animals. That's part of Some, for sure, but only a tiny part (maybe because no one can really explain it?). The book brings up lots of issues in anthrozoology, and is a great primer for the field itself, but in the end it seems that so many of the issues that are brought up are simply noted, and then you move on to another one. Yes, there's something really interesting about a mouse research lab with a rodent problem, and it does seem to be a perfect symbol of humanity's schizophrenic relationship with other species, but I'm not sure where it goes from there. I'm thinking about the next drink I want to get, but I haven't walked away just yet. And that part of the book does get into the issues of using mice in research, and there are some good things to know — a lab mouse is not considered an animal for the purposes of the federal Animal Welfare Act; the research animals rights activists use to show that animals feel pain was performed in experiments where animals felt pain; weird! But this, and a lot of the book are just issues and topics brought up. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it does make it difficult to remember a lot of the anecdotes and topics.

Something I did remember was the part about vegetarians who own cats: If you oppose killing animals for moral reasons (i.e., you're not a Bill Clinton vegan) then you shouldn't own a cat on the grounds that cat food is all animal based — not to mention that the quality of animal in pet food is probably some of the worst industrially farmed shit around. I never put that together. (PETA argues you can have a vegan pet; it seems better not to have one at all, or maybe a manatee or elephant instead.)

All told, Some We Eat is a good book. That said, when unraveling the conundrum of why we love some, hate some and eat some the conclusion seems a little wanting: "What the new science of anthrozoology reveals is that our attitudes, behaviors, and relationships with the animals in our lives — the ones we love, the ones we hate, and the ones we eat — are, likewise, more complicated than we thought."

Complicated? That's it? What is this, Avril Lavigne? I need closure! Simple answers! Grand unifying theories! HuffPo pieces! Cable news stories! Instant Indices! Or at least another scotch and soda — can I get you something at the bar?

Posted: January 14th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

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