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December 23, 2009

2009 Bookshelf Favorites (Plus a Few for the New Year)

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Dayton Duncan I’ve always thought that to be a well-rounded animal advocate it’s important to spend time reading books. Because human-animal questions touch on so many different disciplines—politics, law, culture, history, sociology, and so many different fields of science—it is important not to limit study to just the identified literature within our field. But it has been exciting for me to see an upwelling of substantive writing and publishing in our field.

One of my favorite reads of 2009 was Dayton Duncan’s "The National Parks: America’s Best Idea," a companion volume to the inspiring PBS series by filmmaker Ken Burns. I’ve been talking a lot about this book and another 2009 title I have just begun, Douglas Brinkley’s "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America." Both are tied to a big question for me. How do we make sense of Theodore Roosevelt as someone whose historical contributions to public lands and wildlife protection were unmatched and visionary, but who had an unquenchable personal lust for killing wildlife? Understanding Roosevelt’s contradictions is no easy task, perhaps as difficult as our struggles to understand how the nation’s constitutional framers advanced such an extraordinary call to human liberty at the same time that they were personally involved in chattel slavery.

Made for Each Other by Meg Daley Olmert I am sure my friend Meg Daley Olmert has thoughts on Roosevelt’s schizophrenic impulses with animals, and her book, "Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond," was for me the most stimulating book of the year. She argues that there is a chemical explanation for the human-animal bond, and it’s largely driven by oxytocin. This hormone provides part of the neurobiological explanation for the intensity of the bond between mother and child and other person-to-person relations. But Olmert argues that humans and animals release this chemical in abundance when they interact, and that this is a primary driver of the human-animal bond. Olmert’s work associates her with the path-breaking thinking of E.O. Wilson, who some years ago advanced his biophilia hypothesis to explain our intimate connection to nature.

Charles Siebert is one of the finest writers who devotes his attention to animal issues, and his book, "The Wauchula Woods Accord," provided a compelling case example of how the human-animal bond works in the real world. Siebert’s entire book, built around a transformative overnight encounter with a captive chimp, leads to a powerful formulation of inter-species solidarity and understanding. Here’s the accord itself: “The degree to which we humans will finally stop abusing other creatures, and, for that matter, one another, will ultimately be measured by the degree to which we come to understand how integral a part of us all other creatures actually are.”

The Wauchula Woods Accord by Charles SiebertSeveral books I reviewed on the blog this year focused on farm animal welfare, and Jeffrey Masson’s "The Face on Your Plate," Amy Hatkoff’s "The Inner World of Farm Animals," and Nicolette Hahn Niman’s "Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms" all found receptive audiences. Tal Ronnen’s "The Conscious Cook" is a beautiful and hearty cookbook on vegan eating, and after his appearance on "Oprah," it appeared on the New York Times’ bestseller list. In "The Quantum Wellness Cleanse," Kathy Freston gives readers a 21-day how-to on eating and living better, and it’s readable and accessible and not the least bit doctrinaire. But it was Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Eating Animals" that was the biggest critical success in the genre of diet and agriculture. Foer wrestled with ethical questions related to his own eating habits and factory farming throughout his life, but it was the birth of his new son that prompted his own life-changing examination of the problems and his commitment to a vegetarian lifestyle. He takes apart factory farming in his account, and his book has provoked an intense and serious public discussion of the many problems associated with industrial animal agriculture.

One terrific wildlife book I blogged about is "Animal Investigators," by Laurel Neme. Neme’s book offers a great look at the value of forensics to the investigation of wildlife crimes, and has an array of prescriptions for improving wildlife protection and enforcement work in the United States and abroad.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran FoerOne of my college majors was history and it remains a great passion, so it’s good when I can read animal-focused historical works. I particularly liked Kathryn Shevelow’s "For the Love of Animals," a history of the English animal protection movement. Her book helps to explain the social and cultural values that made the animal protection movement possible, and underscores the point that the idea of kindness to animals was in great currency before there was a formal movement. Two historical titles I wish I could have read in 2009, and sure to be on my 2010 reading list, are Ann Norton Greene’s "Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America," and Shelly Fisher Fishkin’s "Mark Twain’s Book of Animals." Both have received great reviews and have come highly recommended to me. Greene examines the horse as a factor in the history of American technology and a central element in the 19th-century economy. Fishkin brings together some of the animal-focused writing of Mark Twain, one of the most prominent animal advocates of his era.

I’m also eager to read this year’s “Inside of a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz. A psychologist with a Ph.D. in cognitive science, Horowitz explores the natural history of dogs and their evolutionary descent, leading you through a day in the life from a dog’s point of view.

One member of The HSUS family, board member Patrick McDonnell, had a banner 2009 with respect to his creative works. This year Patrick wrote "The Gift of Nothing" and "Wag!," building on life experiences of his MUTTS’ characters, and with Eckhart Tolle, produced the remarkable "Guardians of Being."

Nowadays, I do a lot of my reading on the road, in planes, in airports and train stations, and in the homes of friends or the hotels where I stay—whenever and wherever I get a chance. Naturally, I get sent a lot of notices from people about books on animals I should read. Do you have a favorite I haven’t mentioned here? I’m already making up a list for 2010, and I’m looking forward to your suggestions.

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