Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book Review: "Anthill"

Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson is one of my favorite writers (his Consilience had a profound impact on my conception of education, and I wish I'd read it sooner than I did; his memoir, Naturalist, is a delight). When I heard he was publishing a novel, I cringed a bit, because I worried it would disappoint. Anthill (forthcoming, W.W. Norton) wasn't a perfect book, but I was relieved to find myself not disappointed with it.

Wilson's novel is bookended by chapters on the life of young Raff Cody, a budding naturalist who takes an interest in a biologically-rich habitat near his home, the Nokobee Tract. Given Wilson's strong (and, in my view, entirely correct) views on the importance of biological diversity and conservation, it will surprise no one that he uses Raff's life and career trajectory to proselytize on these points (I hope it's widely read and understood for this message alone).

My favorite part of the book, though, was the center section, supposedly extracted from Raff's undergraduate thesis on the ants of the Nokobee Tract. Told from the perspective of the ants themselves, it follows the biological cycles of several different any colonies in the area. Full of biological and scientific detail about the ants, their lives, and their societies, this made for wonderful reading.

Others probably disliked the level of detailed description Wilson lends to his fiction - I liked this aspect of it. And as far as I'm concerned, he might have just left the humans out altogether and brought us the story of the ants. That made the book for me.

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