Top positive review
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Hope he's writing another book right now
on May 12, 2012
I bought this based on a recent NY Times review. Sad to say, I wasn't familiar with his other books. I often buy books based on good reviews that end up becoming treasured additions to my library, and very rarely find an author with whom I was previously unfamiliar whose entire oeuvre I then purchase--this is one of those very few. This book will become one of my gift-giving ideas, and I can't wait to read the rest of his works. I only hope, now that he's officially retired from his day job, that he's writing another book. Maybe it'll be published before next weekend so I can avoid yard work then as well.
The book is an engaging description of extinct organisms and so-called "living fossils" compared to their closest living (or recently living) counterparts, and how they fit into the evolution of life, as far back as the fossil record allows (which is a labored and poor synopsis on my part). Fortey traces back the "tree of life" to the earliest branch points, or as early as possible, and discusses those branch points using examples such as the titular crab and worm. Indeed, the horseshoe crab and velvet worm in this case are distinct examples and more or less metaphors; this book is NOT about those two organisms alone. So, if you're looking for a how-to guide for raising, viewing, or eating either, this isn't it.
It's much too short at approximately 300 pages, and many details are glossed over or assumed as understood. It's also one of the most well-written and engaging books on natural science I've ever read; I started it in the morning, and didn't stop until I finished it that night. Then I pulled out some Dawkins, Gould and Darwin, and began to read sections of both along with different sections of Fortey's book. Fortey's love of this subject (or subjects, since there are several touched upon) is infectious, and I've pretty much spent a Saturday from 5:00 AM until Sunday morning engrossed in his excitement. I'm taking a break here to write this, in fact.
To me, the book almost seems like a wide-ranging discussion with an avuncular professor about evolution and life that goes beyond the title, and unlike some "popular science" books, the love of science and nature AND the humor of the author is obvious and unforced. He is a repository of information; he's gracious when describing his sources and contacts; he's honest about topics that he didn't witness himself but chose to write about anyway; and in several sections, he's extremely funny (though it's that dry British humor that appears as an aside of parenthetical comment). He has the ability, like the best works of Sagan or Gould, to explain complicated concepts in a conversational style that doesn't make you feel ignorant when you probably are, but to get excited enough to delve more deeply in whatever paragraph you just read.
I love this book and the author's style, and I love the fact that it's made me pull out a stack of books from my collection to delve further into an interest in nature that Fortey reawakened in me. It's too short, obviously, since the period covered is something like 1 billion years (give or take a month). It's not a complex scholarly work, so readers who are experts in paleontology may find things to complain about (I'm not one of those, so I have no major complaints). It is, however, a book that made me feel I didn't pay enough for what I got out of it.
Minor complaints: the book includes a glossary at the end defining and discussing some terms used in the text, but some readers may find several terms missing in the glossary. That's not a big deal, since the readers who want more information know how to find it, but I can imagine reviews from some readers complaining about the dearth of details. Also, the table of geological periods at the start of the book does not show details about the most recent definitions of the periods, though this is discussed in the text. I would have liked to have a more detailed table, and perhaps a more detailed discussion of the dating, simply to have more pages from the author to enjoy.
Other than that, going back to the NY Times review: if they don't put this in the top 10 non-fiction book listing this year, I'll cancel my subscription.