By the Book With Primatologist Frans de Waal: What’s the Last Great Book You Read?

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “The 1,328 Page Novel That Captivated the Primatologist Frans de Waal”:

What books are on your night stand?

I’m reading Paul Theroux’s “Deep South.” Even though I’ve lived in Georgia for 30 years, I remain an outsider and still have lots to learn about the region. I am intrigued by its history — from my house I can see Stone Mountain, which features the nation’s largest Confederate monument — but Theroux’s travelogue strikes me as rather clichéd. It entirely ignores the vibrant new South seen here in Atlanta.

What’s the last great book you read?

Two totally different books. Haruki Murakami’s trilogy “1Q84” kept me spellbound for all of its 1,328 pages, which is unusual for me. Such an unrealistic story, yet so realistically told. I read most books in English, but Murakami and other non-English-language authors I often read translated into my native Dutch. The second book concerns the discoveries behind the spectacular mRNA vaccines that are saving the world of the Covid pandemic. “The Code Breaker,” by Walter Isaacson, should perhaps be titled “The Code Breakers,” because it’s about two women who discovered new molecular gene-editing tools and shared the Nobel Prize for their pioneering work. Science writing at its best.

Describe your ideal reading experience.

I sit comfortably in my leather chair in the center of my office, which is also my personal living space in our home. I listen to music of almost any kind and have a cat in my lap, who keeps an eye on the large aquarium in the corner. It will be late, after 9:30 p.m., because in the daytime I do other things. I used to watch late-night political shows, but for my mental sanity I have given up on that. Instead, I read more books. Real books, because I don’t enjoy reading on a tablet.

What nature writers would you recommend to lay readers? Your favorite memoir by a scientist?

I love books by naturalists who have immersed themselves into the habits of a single species. They ask the most penetrating questions. Bernd Heinrich describes the ravens of Maine, such as in “Ravens in Winter,” which is to be read by the fireside because of all its freezing scenes. Rick McIntyre’s series about alpha wolves in Yellowstone focuses on leadership and personality, starting with “The Rise of Wolf 8.”

My favorite memoirs are “Naturalist,” by E. O. Wilson, and Robert M. Sapolsky’s “A Primate’s Memoir.” Both books convey a boyish enthusiasm for animal behavior, and recall the way I was drawn to animals as a child. Wilson, a giant of evolutionary biology, describes his first explorations of nature in the swamps of Alabama. The neuroscientist Sapolsky talks about his studies of rambunctious baboons in Kenya, mixed with lots of wry commentary and gentle humor that puts a smile on your face while you read.

What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a primatologist and contributed to your academic development?

When one of my college professors, upset by its immense popularity, declared “The Naked Ape,” by Desmond Morris, unscientific garbage, I rushed out to get a copy. I don’t believe in book burning! While poking fun at our species, Morris was also one of the first to denounce the blank slate view of humankind. I didn’t know then that later in life he’d encourage me to write my first book, “Chimpanzee Politics,” and help me find a publisher. Other popular books that I read at the time were Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring” and Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man.” Without overdoing it, good animal books humanize animals while animalizing humans.

Your new book looks at gender dynamics and roles in nature. What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to learn more about the subject?

Since gender supposedly transcends biology, its relation to sex and sex differences is a thorny issue. But even books that stress the cultural side, such as Margaret Mead’s “Male and Female,” can’t get around a few universal human gender differences. The best modern read is perhaps a combination of Deborah Blum’s “Sex on the Brain” and Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex,” with the first being supportive of biology and the second more skeptical.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

My godmother always brought me a big book for my birthday, which I’d read avidly. She may not have known how happy she made me until I told her much later. They were adventure books, such as those by Jules Verne or Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” I also borrowed my brothers’ books: With five brothers, there was ample choice. I devoured bandes dessinées — comic books in the Franco-Belgian tradition, such as “Tintin,” “Willy & Wanda” and “Asterix.”

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

In 1827, Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist, defied convention by admitting women to his academic lectures. With men sneering at their presence, women made up half the audience of his popular classes. Von Humboldt was a pioneer in so many ways. I knew his name well before I opened “The Invention of Nature,” by Andrea Wulf, but not his full story. I read with amazement about his travels across the globe to discover how all of nature is interconnected. If we now talk about earth as one huge ecosystem, which humans cannot treat (and ruin) any way they want, we have von Humboldt to thank for it.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun” to see if his speculative fiction is as good as Murakami’s. It was quite good, but not as good. When I read novels, I like some history in them, so that I also learn about a certain place or time. For the same reason, I read history books whether they are real or imaginative, such as recently “The Spinoza Problem,” by Irvin Yalom. The books I enjoy the most, however, are straightforward nonfiction books, such as hopefully the next one on my list, which is “A Most Remarkable Creature,” by Jonathan Meiburg, on the caracara, a raptor.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

One of my treasures is a book received long ago from fellow students as a present for my Ph.D. It is a beautifully illustrated volume about Hieronymus Bosch, the medieval painter. Many people find his art disturbing, but I was born in the city where he lived and worked, and grew up with his imaginative visions of heaven and hell. I like his attention to facial expressions while depicting humanity’s sins and follies. There are also tons of animals in his paintings mixed with trees, fruits and figures that are half human, half animal. Bosch was the world’s first surrealist.

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