The Five Best Books About Dogs

From a Wall Street Journal story headlined “Five Best: Books on Dogs”:

Selected by Alexandra Horowitz, the author, most recently, of “The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves.”

My Dog Tulip
By J.R. Ackerley (1956)

1. Within 40 pages of “My Dog Tulip,” the reader is carried from a familiar description of man-acquiring-dog to man-describing-in-detail-dog’s-defecatory-habits. That’s just a prelude to the owner’s involvement in his dog’s copulatory behavior. Dog people do wind up knowing a great deal about the biological processes of the urban dog, and J.R. Ackerley, who modeled Tulip after his own dog, Queenie, isn’t shy about discussing them. Ackerley is ardently interested in this dog’s every look, move and behavior. And yet he also hides his face in his hands when Tulip gives birth to a litter, peeking out and timidly offering her a bowl of warm milk like an admiring but feckless husband. So strong is his empathy for her that even his descriptions of her heat cycles reflect the fugue state he sees her experiencing: “she rushes; she has come, she has gone, silence claps down again, it is as though she never had been.” We’ve all loved dogs, but maybe not quite like Ackerley has.

Dog Songs
By Mary Oliver (2013)

2. Mary Oliver’s poems, collected in “Dog Songs,” capture the heartfelt sentiment that so many dog people have about their charges. She invokes the visceral satisfaction of watching dogs run off leash, “expressing / the pleasures of the body in this world.” The science of dog cognition mostly asks how dogs navigate our visual world, but Oliver notices the way dogs touch and smell the world in order to see it. And she schools us all by asking—when the dog has run from us, and is chasing his urges and the slipstreams of the scent of other animals on the air—who are we “to summon his hard and happy body / his four white feet that love to wheel and pedal / through the dark leaves / to come back to walk by my side, obedient”?

The Friend
By Sigrid Nunez (2018)

3. For a self-avowed cat person, Sigrid Nunez is an astute observer of the poignancy and peculiarities of the contemporary dog-human relationship. She writes about dogs honestly, taking the voice of her protagonist, who is new to living with dogs, as a way to see them with fresh eyes. The narrator has been bequeathed the Great Dane of her friend upon his suicide—and she, not a dog person, takes in this spirit as the vestige, in some sense, of her beloved friend. As her life and the dog’s become intertwined, she peppers the story with quiet asides, such as this observation on the asymmetry of cross-species communication: “He wags his tail, and for the thousandth time I think how frustrating it must be for a dog: the endless trouble of making yourself understood to a human.” She is soon talking to dogs like a true dog person and, too soon, overseeing the end of his life.

The Dog
By Kerstin Ekman (1986)

4. Originally published in Swedish as “Hunden,” the 2009 English translation by Linda Schenck and Rochelle Wright bears the unfortunate subtitle “an inspirational classic tale of the unique bond between man and dog”—which is, in fact, not what this slim book is about. Kerstin Ekman, well-known in Sweden as a writer of detective novels, follows the trials of a puppy, named only pup, who loses track of his mother and owner in the wilderness on a cold day in winter. He does not recover them. His story could be seen as a metaphor for the difficulties of human existence, but I read it as a frank, imaginative consideration of what dogs are without humans. Over the course of the story, pup grows out of puppyhood and into maturity, propelled by instinct and necessity more than by knowledge or keenness. Ms. Ekman’s prose reads like a writing exercise (in the best way): allowing herself only spare descriptions of circumstance to demonstrate the budding of perception into understanding.

By William Steig (1972)

5. Sure, Dominic, one of the winsome characters in William Steig’s fabulous children’s books, walks bipedally, dons a smart hat with a green feather and carries his possessions in a bindle over his shoulder. But he’s more doggy than most representations of dogs in children’s and adult books. As Dominic heads out on an adventure, and a series of misadventures, he remains optimistic and steadfast in his allegiances, like a good dog. But more telling is Steig’s weaving of the dog’s sniffing—both investigatory and sleuthing—into the tale, as he “decided to smell out Grandville, his usual practice in towns he was visiting for the first time,” and discovering a fox in disguise: “Dominic would have recognized his smell merely by sniffing something he had touched only lightly a year earlier.” In true fairy-tale fashion, Dominic’s story winds up with a true love. But isn’t that the story of every person who meets a dog?

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