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Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature Hardcover – Bargain Price, March 17, 2008

4.4 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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David Quammen is a naturalist, writer, and literary scholar who can turn from William Faulkner to theories of demographic stochasticity on a dime--or a comma. Natural Acts, a collection of Quammen's columns by the same name from Outside magazine, highlights his many interests. In its pages, he touches on Malthusian population dynamics, the mating habits of butterflies and snakes, Tycho Brahe's quest for the stars, magnolia trees, whales, and deserts--to name just a few of the matters that pass beneath his bemused gaze. This is humanely wrought science writing at its best. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Starred Review. Quammen's writing style is so delightful that his content could almost be secondary. Happily, the author (most recently of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin) and his subjects are equally engaging: from a light-hearted trope on crows, whom he surmises are "too intelligent for their station in life"; to the dead-serious issue of human cloning, which he labels "perniciously stupid"; to a harrowing 453-day adventure in a remote Congolese forest Quammen shared with explorer J. Michael Fay. A revised and expanded version of the out-of-print 1985 original, this volume reprints a number of Quammen's columns from Outside magazine along with more lengthy articles culled from sources like Audubon, National Geographic and Smithsonian, including a solid selection of his post-1985 work. In his introduction he describes the new version as "a chimerical creature, like a griffin, bird-shaped in front with a mammalian caboose," but his topics-and his tone-aren't always so whimsical; in "Planet of Weeds," a 1998 piece published in Harper's, he predicts man-made ecological catastrophe: "Homo sapiens itself is the consummate weed." A book to ponder and enjoy.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Rev Exp edition (March 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393058050
  • ASIN: B004TE7B4Q
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,422,960 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Quammen's first work in book form is merely a collection of his various magazine articles. You may be slightly annoyed when reading the book in a couple days because some subjects are repeated. But when you realize they appeared 2 or 3 yrs apart in a magazine, its easily excusable. Especially when the writing is so superb, timely (actually ahead of its time, since much of it was written 20+ years ago), interesting and educational. Some of the more dire environmental predictions havent exactly come true (YET), but that does not diminish the urgency of our ecological nightmare.
Read this book as a primer, then read Quammen's "Song of the Dodo," to gain some true knowledge.
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By jd103 on January 28, 2010
Format: Paperback
Although I'd read Natural Acts, it was the only collection of David Quammen's essays I didn't own so I was happy to see it republished in this new edition. Half of its length is now made up of 7 newer pieces not in the original, while 11 of the original essays have been eliminated.

In the new introduction, Quammen offers three objectives for the book: putting what he considered the best of the original back in print, publishing some of his favorite more recent work in book format, and providing the opportunity to see how a writer has changed during the intervening quarter century. My opinion on that last one--he may well be a better, more knowledgeable writer now, but I do miss the sense of fun and brevity in the earlier shorter magazine columns.

Still, I consider the best and most important essay here to be one in the newer section. Planet of Weeds explores the sixth mass extinction now underway, humans rich and poor, invasive and "weed" species, and who is likely to still be around when planetary life hits its next low point--an excellent if depressing essay. Another recent winner concerns the life and death of a dog and a lesson learned about community.

I was curious to see what the author decided to eliminate so I checked out a library copy of the old edition. For the most part, I found the cut essays to be dated, either by changed numbers and facts or because they were in response to a then current issue or book. A couple others seemed a bit dull. I would have liked to see 3 of the deleted essays remain--a funny one about sea cucumbers probably cut for personal reasons, one about a wild tiger and the trip to see him, and especially one about bison which seemed completely solid to me.

I hope this will help you decide whether to read the new, the old, or both editions.
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Format: Hardcover
This marvelous collection of essays covers a wide range of topics, including death by hypothermia, giant octopus wrestling, and of course, Tycho Brahe's missing nose. But my personal favorite is Quammen's account of the U.S. Army program to train bats to firebomb Japanese cities during WW II. Needless to say, this endeavor proved disastrous for teachers and pupils alike.

In another piece, Quammen discusses the long-term consequences of overpopulation and habitat loss on our natural inheritance. He begins this essay with a brief discussion of planet Earth's five major extinction events so far, and offers a thoughtful, richly detailed prognosis as we blithely sail toward the sixth.

Anyone with even a passing interest in science would enjoy reading Natural Acts. I highly recommend this book, both for its style and substance.
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Format: Paperback
As one whose lack of knowledge in all things scientific is appalling, I picked up this book for one reason only: to be entertained. That happened without my stopping to think about it, but I actually learned a few things along the way-- things which may never serve any purpose in my professional life but which have come in handy in conversation lapses at parties. For instance, what is the one malady shared by sea cucumbers and humans-- and which animal is better equipped to deal with it? In World War II, why did the U.S. send thousands of bats plummeting to their deaths? Which animal has the most free time? And how about those timid octopi? Why so shy? This was such an enjoyable book. I didn't have to run for the dictionary once, I laughed out loud on occasion, and my friends think I know the strangest facts.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I read a number of these essays when first published in Outside and other periodicals. That did not detract from reading them once more and enjoying the author's thought-provoking, insightful and often humorous take on a far-ranging variety of natural subjects, a few I admit which wouldn't have warranted my attention had they not bee included in the book.

The fact some of the essays date back to 1981 and the most recent to 2005 does not make the information outdated either. Quammen has revised and updated to bring everything up to date with current scientific knowledge.

The first section of the book deals with some of nature's more unsavory beasties--mosquitoes, black widow spiders among them. From there he veers to character studies of a number of interesting personalities, including Jack Horner, the Montana paleontologist, and Eugene Marais, a fascinating multi-careered South African.

He even adds a few of his own adventures--kayaking down river through the Grand Canyon, joining in a jungle trek across the Congo--and a tribute to a dog that came into his life through marriage.

It's a rich and rewarding collection worthy of anyone's time.
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