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Popular Science

By: Hugh Raffles (Author)

465 pages, B/w illus

Pantheon Books

Hardback | Mar 2010 | #185612 | ISBN-13: 9780375423864
Availability: Usually dispatched within 7 days Details
NHBS Price: £26.99 $33/€30 approx

About this book

A stunningly original exploration of the beautiful, ancient, successful, astoundingly accomplished, largely unknown, and unfathomably different species with which we share this world. For as long as humans have been here, insects have been here. Yet we hardly know them, not even the ones we're closest to: the insects that eat our food, share our beds, live in our homes. Organizing his book alphabetically, with one entry for each letter, weaving together brief vignettes, meditations, and extended essays, Hugh Raffles uses the prism of history and science, anthropology and travel, economics and popular culture to show how insects have triggered our obsessions, stirred our fears, and beguiled our imaginations.

Raffles provides a glimpse into the ritualized world of Chinese cricket fighting, the deceptive courtship rituals of the dance fly, the vital and vicious role locusts play in the famines that afflict the African continent, the queer sexual practices among insects, the obsession of Japan's entire culture with insects, how insects deformed by Chernobyl inspired art, and how our unease with insects has prompted aberrant behavior of our own. Deftly combining the anecdotal and the scientific, Raffles has given us an essential book of reference that is, as well, a fascination of the highest order.


"Though the title suggests a Latin-heavy lexicon of insects from aphids to wolf spiders, anthropologist Raffles (In Amazonia) takes a decidedly different approach in his erudite and entertaining paean to bugs. Some chapters focus on nations: the paradox that in Niger, where crops are regularly ravaged by locusts, that very scourgewhen salted and fried or boiled like shrimpis also a protein staple; the craze in Japan for stag and rhinoceros beetles as pets; and the revival of a Chinese traditionnow televisedof crickets locking jaws with the ferocity of fighting dogs. Other sections feature individuals who have dedicated their lives to the contemplation of insects, e.g., the Austrian painter Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, who draws inspiration from radiation-deformed leaf bugs. One short chapter considers same-sex behavior (interspecies ass play); a longer one studies the crush-freaks who fetishize the close-up sight and amplified sound of bugs being crushed by women's feet. Raffles' eclectic examination of our diverse reactions to bugs, ranging from scholarly and aesthetic awe to revulsion or phobia, is an enthralling hodgepodge of historical fact, anthropological observation, and scientific insight."

- Publishers Weekly


"Let's be clear: this volume is not an encyclopedia. It is an assemblage of 26 offbeatsome might say bizarreand highly original essays and philosophical musings by anthropology professor Raffles (In Amazonia: A Natural History) in which insects are metaphors for the human condition. Chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, are two to 42 pages long. From "Air," "Beauty," and "Chernobyl" through "Ex Libris, Exempla," "Yearnings," and "Zen and the Art of Zzz's," these fascinating, sometimes disturbing effusions dare us to come face-to-face with ourselves, human society, the vast complexity of insects, and our proper place in the mosaic of life on this planet. Written in a scholarly yet lyrical style, peppered with black-and-white illustrations and photographs, and backed up by 41 pages of "Notes" and annotated references arranged by chapter, this is sure to amuse, educate, raise our hackles, unveil our guilt, and leave us to ponder just who we think we are anyway. VERDICT: For inquisitive adults seeking a mind trip outside the box."

- Annette Aiello, Smithsonian Tropical Research Inst., Ancn, Panama, for Library Journal, 02/01/2010

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