Sunday, January 22, 2012

Staff Pick : The Great Sperm Whale by Richard Ellis

I love to read about the natural world. I have enjoyed quite a few books on a wide variety of animals, such as porcupines, ravens and deer. But the most exciting books for me are those about the apex predators, such as tigers, bears, sharks and wolves.

Well known marine biologist Richard Ellis' latest book is about the ultimate apex predator, The Great Sperm Whale (M). This creature is a total tour de force of animal power. Weighing in at 70 tonnes and up to 60 feet long, this is an impressive creature by any measure. Factor in a bunch of huge teeth and the ability to dive to depths of a few kilometers and it becomes apparent that this is one impressive hunter.

Richard Ellis' approach to writing is very similar to that of authors Simon Winchester (M)and Charles C. Mann (M). He provides in depth details about the history, biology and cultural influence of his topic, allowing the reader to fully place the book's subject matter into a larger context than is possible with a straight up biology or history book.

For example, Ellis spends a whole chapter on Melville's famed novel Moby Dick (M), as this was a pivotal piece of culture that greatly influenced the world's knowledge and perception of sperm whales. He also delves into the history of the whaling industry, providing fascinating insights to lives of those rugged souls whose livelihood depended on bravery and good luck. He also spends a fair amount of time chronicling the close relationship and epic battles between sperm whales and the giant squid.

Similar to a lot of Simon Winchester's books, you may find yourself learning more about the topic than you thought you wanted to know. But that is one of the main appeal of these books for me, that I end up with a very broad knowledge about the topic. How else would I ever know that the Sperm Whale was once the world's most prized source of oil for candles and sewing machines?

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