Thursday, September 07, 2006

Random Reading Notes - *A Primate's Memoir*

A good night of sleep makes a world of difference. I think I've decided to jump in the deep end with the problem, as it were.

One of the many joys of IF's recent visit to the NorthWoods is that she reads lots and always has great reading recommendations for me. Robert M. Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir was one of the books she suggested, and it sounded so good that I started in pretty quickly. That may have had an unfortunate effect on the speed with which I finished prepping my classes, but, oh well!

This one's a winner, through and through. Sapolsky starts by saying "I joined the baboon trip during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla" (13). Seriously, does it get any better than that for a book opening?

Sapolsky weaves in his observations of the baboon troop as an anthropologist, his self-observations as an anthropologist who realizes that we're all primates who behave like primates, and his observations of Africans and other anthropologists or scientists. Along the way, I got some laughs, learned some African history and biology, and, yes, whuss that I am, shed a few tears.

He's got a great voice; I'm not quite surehow to explain it, but he uses commonplace phrases in slightly off ways to great comic effect. Part of the amusement comes from conscious anthropomorphisms, as when he says of one baboon, "he shoulda been a contender" (97). I've never been to Africa, but my experiences in the Peace Corps resonated with the ways he can be charmed and frustrated by the ways Kenya works (or doesn't work), and by the effects on himself and the baboons he follows.

There's a sort of balance between seeing oneself as "out" of a culture, and thinking that implies some kind of objective observation and judgment, and seeing oneself as "in" and knowing, and thinking that implies a kind of superior knowledge, a sort of Orientalism, and he moves around that continuum, but always manages to help his reader recognize his subject position. It's a precarious balance between striking an authoritative tone and getting the reader to see the fictionalized persona of the Orientalist. Sapolsky gets that well.

Mostly, what comes across is Sapolsky's sheer pleasure in his work and life, his interactions, his concerns, his engagement. If I write some memoir someday, I hope I can give the same sense of joy in intellectual work and living.

ps. I'm always looking for suggestions of good books, especially more recent novels or non-fiction. I'm 400 years behind in my reading, but that doesn't mean I can't acknowledge what's been written in the past 10 years!

2 comments:

  1. First, "I'm 400 years behind in my reading" made me laugh. It's the perfect excuse for everything!

    Second, the bit about being both "out" of a culture and "in" it seems to be very close to what teaching literature of the past is about. We can't ever know what it was really like back then, but we have a clear connection to many of the issues and experiences depicted in the texts.

    I think that that juxtaposition is where a lot of those big questions can be formulated. But it looks like you're already pushing in that direction.

    And, word, on the emptiness following the first day. I still feel all talked out.

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  2. I would highly recommend Sapolsky's other books, especially The Trouble With Testosterone and Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. Good reads both! ZDGU is a tiny bit textbook-y but very readable and fun (and you learn a ton). TTWT is, if I remember correctly, a collection of essays.

    If you like reading pop biology there's a whole list I could make... including Austad's Why We Age, Ellison's On Fertile Ground, Angier's Woman: an Intimate Geography (this is a particular favorite!)... sigh... so many good books, so little time.

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