A New York Times Notable Book
A stunningly original exploration of the ties that bind us to the beautiful, ancient, astoundingly accomplished, largely unknown, and unfathomably different species with whom we share the world.
For as long as humans have existed, insects have been our constant companions. Yet we hardly know them, not even the ones we’re closest to: those that eat our food, share our beds, and live in our homes. Organizing his book alphabetically, Hugh Raffles weaves together brief vignettes, meditations, and extended essays, taking the reader on a mesmerizing exploration of history and science, anthropology and travel, economics, philosophy, and popular culture. Insectopedia shows us how insects have triggered our obsessions, stirred our passions, and beguiled our imaginations.
Excerpted from Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles. Copyright © 2010 by Hugh Raffles. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A conversation with Hugh Raffles
Author of INSECTOPEDIA
You’re an anthropologist who has written about life in the Brazilian Amazon. Why insects for this book? Have you always been fascinated by insects and people’s interactions with them?
Actually, no! But since I started researching this book a few years ago, I’ve become completely obsessed by insects and our relationships with them. Now they seem like the most amazing creatures. But before that, they were around me but weren’t something I paid that much attention to unless they were biting me or invading my apartment.
For a long time though, I’ve been interested in the connections between people and animals of all types. And I’ve thought a lot about what other worlds exist alongside the ones that we people live in. Most of these worlds are invisible to us. To give an example: we usually assume that time is a universal measure that everyone experiences in more or less similar ways. But it seems likely that other animals’ experience of time is completely different from ours—that for them, their short lives might actually last a very long time.
Despite the complexity of our own reality, it’s quite a limited universe when we consider all the parallel realities within which other beings exist. Insects are fascinating because they’re so different from us. It’s almost impossible to imagine what the worlds they live in are like. Recreating those worlds is one of the things I try to do in Insectopedia, often by meeting people (artists, musicians, and scientists, for example) who have their own interesting ways of thinking about this.
How did you decide on this encyclopedic format of A to Z? Did that seem a natural order after you wrote the essays or did you plan that from the beginning?
I’m one of those people who’s interested in pretty much everything. After spending a long time writing a book about one small community in the Brazilian Amazon, I wanted a project that would give me the freedom to find out about as many things as possible. The form of an encyclopedia seemed perfect for that. Now, I also realize that the insects pushed me in this direction: there are so many of them and so many different species, they’re everywhere and they won’t stay still—the book needed a structure that would capture some of that energy.
There were two other reasons for the A-Z. One was that, much as I like encyclopedias, I also wanted to make fun of them—the vanity of the idea that it’s possible to know everything, and then possible to collect all that knowledge in one place. My entries are a little arbitrary, but then so are the entries in a real encyclopedia when you compare them with all the possible information that could be included.
The second reason was that I wanted to find out what it would be like to write with such a constraining form. It was tough! In fact, it was exhausting to be locked into twenty-six entries. There was a long period when I’d already written enough chapters for a whole book but still wasn’t even halfway through the alphabet. I’d say there were a couple of years when I lost hope that I’d ever get the thing finished. But on the other hand, there’s no doubt that the alphabet pushed me to be more creative than I would have been otherwise and it let me experiment with writing essays of different lengths and different styles. And it was fun—it encouraged me to be playful which is always good!
How did you research topics in this book? What led you from one topic to the next?
I started working on this book back in 2003 and since then I’ve been constantly on the lookout for interesting stories and situations about insects. Lots of people sent me ideas and I built up a collection of possible topics. I wanted an “encyclopedic” spread of chapters—a wide range across history and geography. And, in fact, the book visits 11th century Japan, 16th century Prague, 19th century France, modern-day China, Niger, and Florence among many other times and places.
I was especially interested in situations in which people and insects encountered each other in such a way that the superiority of human beings was no longer certain. I looked for situations in which the meeting between people and insects led to the person discovering something new about themselves, about his or her relationship to other beings, and about what it means to be human. I’d like to say that the insects had some kind of experience in these encounters too, but I don’t think I’ve managed to figure that out yet!
What was the most bizarre thing you discovered about people and insects? How about the most universal thing?
The most bizarre thing? Well, it’s probably the most universal thing too. The more I’ve learned about insects and the more amazing they’ve become to me, the more strange it seems that we kill them without the least thought. Elias Canetti said that insects are “outlaws” because they are the only living beings which we kill with absolutely no moral qualms—think of Obama and the fly he swatted during that CNBC interview. What did he say? Something like “Got you, sucker!” That seems pretty bizarre to me and, unfortunately, more or less universal!
I’m working on a book about inanimate things. I got provoked by something that the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote once—something with which I strongly disagree! Heidegger took a very dim view of other beings and things in comparison with people. He said that man was “world-forming,” animals were “poor in world,” and inanimate objects were “worldless.” I have no idea if he was right in terms of consciousness, but I think about it a bit differently. I’m interested in the worlds that get made through the interactions of people, animals, and things. When you look at it this way, every being and every thing can be “world-forming” in the right circumstances. I’ve written one book on people (In Amazonia) and one on animals (Insectopedia), so the next one is going to be about things.
From the Hardcover edition.
“A collection of imaginative forays into what, for most readers, will be terra incognita. . . . Insectopedia qualifies as food for thought. . . . As inventive and wide ranging and full of astonishing surprises as the vast insect world itself. Raffles takes us on a delirious journey.”
—The New York Times
“Impossible to categorize, wildly stimulating. . . . A disconcerting, fantastical, (multi-)eye-opening journey into another existence.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Vivid and fascinating. . . . This book will challenge your view of insects and make you see these wonderful creatures from a new perspective.”
“As Raffles shows our nearby neighbors to be at once dangerous and beautiful, common and incomprehensible, he refracts a world that is newly fascinating.”
—Audubon Magazine (Editors’ Choice)
“[A] big, beautiful testament to the glory of paying attention.”
—The Boston Globe
“The coolest, most beautifully written book on bugs imaginable.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Sings with scholarship, deft writing, and an authentic fascination with the six-legged creatures that have so long roamed the Earth.”
“Combines elements of science, history, travel and popular culture to form a sparkling whole, a wide-ranging and idiosyncratic survey of a world we all too often scorn or swat. . . . [Raffles] reminds us of the connections among all creatures, of the unfathomable mysteries that separate us, and of the fragility and resilience of life.”
—The Providence Journal
“A revelation of the world of our fellow creatures . . . by a writer whose style is equal to his huge and strange task.”
—Buffalo News (Editor’s Choice)
“Unusual and most engaging.”
—The Seattle Times
“Provocative. . . . Insectopedia opens up a can of worms and it’s doubtful they can be herded back in.”
—Santa Cruz Sentinel
“Lucid and often beautifully constructed prose. . . . We can’t recommend it highly enough.”
“The most readable book ever written about insects.”
“Gorgeous, fascinating, and thought-provoking. . . . A stunning, sensitively written, insightful book. . . . Raffles set out to write a book about how people learn something new about themselves through relationships with insects, and he succeeded admirably.”