Friday, April 30, 2010

Hugh Raffles' "Insectopedia"

Hugh Raffles teaches anthropology at The New School. He is the author of In Amazonia: A Natural History, which received the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing. His essays have been published in Best American Essays, Granta, and Orion. Raffles received a Whiting Writers’ Award in 2009.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Insectopedia, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Insectopedia comes midway through a chapter about cricket-fighting in Shanghai. Does it reveal the quality of the whole? That’s probably for others to say. But it certainly reveals something about the book’s preoccupation with the ways people and insects are entangled and the ways that together they create complex and often unexpected worlds. And it’s also a dramatic moment, so it reveals something too about this as a story-book driven by the intensity — good and bad — of these cross-species connections.

But much as I admire his work, I’m not quite sure about the reliability of Ford’s test. I’ve come to think of Insectopedia as a book that’s not just about insects but also by them, a book that embodies many of their virtues and vices: it roams widely but within its own logic, it’s highly structured but also anarchic, it’s precise but still a bit ditzy, it can be seductive but it’s a bit scary too, there’s lots of it but it still only scratches the surface of what's out there. I’d like to suggest that readers base their judgment on a wider selection, open it randomly in several places, flip through it, jump around, take your time. Or, better still, and what I’m sure every author would prefer, read the whole thing!
Read an excerpt from Insectopedia, and learn more about the book and author at the Insectopedia website.

--Marshal Zeringue