The Book Briefing: VS Naipaul, Jack E. Davis

Not long ago, eagles were rats in the American public imagination. Despite the bald eagle’s position as a national symbol, the actual bird was widely despised until about the mid-20th century. Before that, many people treated them like rodents and killed them indiscriminately, while unknowingly admiring the bird’s likeness on government seals, coins, and memorabilia. In The bald eagle, Jack E. Davis offers a dual biography: he traces the history of both the emblem and the creature and describes how patriotic advocacy for conservation ultimately allowed their public perception to merge. Most telling is what he says about American exceptionalism.

Throughout history, animals have often served as proxies for very human blockages. In what Jill Lepore calls “the most important animal rights case of the 21st century”, a captive elephant named Happy has become the mascot for these tensions. The argument for her freedom rests on a cryptic question: is she a person? Likewise, as a species, the octopus is an odd peer, given that our most recent common ancestor lived around 600 million years ago. Yet their expressive demeanor has a familiar tinge of sensibility. Olivia Judson struggles with scientists’ slippery definitions of non-human intelligence. She also questions whether our dissection of the octopus’ “mind” is an attempt to alleviate the loneliness of our own species.

Perhaps we can find communion in embracing the uniqueness of others. Frans de Waal’s book Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? challenges the common tendency to view intelligence in other genres as a mere hierarchy. In her review, Alison Gopnik proposes instead of bonobos and crows – and even human children! – are special and precious for how different they are from us.

When Anand Giridharadas profiled VS Naipaul in 2011, he noted that in his travelogue The Mask of Africa and their conversation, Naipaul identified strongly with the animals he encountered, expressing a startling tenderness rarely seen in his assessments of humans. “A cat has only itself,” he kept repeating to Giridharadas; later he drew a parallel with a writer’s own isolation. Except that a cat is not a writer. Maybe a cat or an elephant doesn’t have to be a person. Perhaps, by being himself, he has had more than enough.

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What we read

Dan Winters

America’s love-hate relationship with the bald eagle

“Ultimately, bald people and human beings face the same challenge: how to live together in peace.”

Close up of Happy the elephant's face

Happy at the Bronx Zoo (Photograph by Daniel Shea for Atlantic)

The elephant that could be a person

“This case is not about an elephant. This is the elephant in the courtroom: the place of the natural world in the laws and constitutions written for mankind. »

An octopus underwater

Reinhard Dirscherl/Getty

What the octopus knows

“An encounter with an octopus can sometimes give you the strong feeling that you have encountered another spirit.”

Illustration of a man galloping with various animals

Christopher Neal

how animals think

“Children, chimpanzees, crows and octopuses are ultimately so interesting, not because they’re mini-me, but because they’re aliens, not because they’re smart like us, but because they’re smart in a way that we haven’t even considered.”

A portrait of VS Naipaul

David Levenson/Getty

VS Naipaul: The Constant Critic, Animal Lover

The mask unmasks Naipaul – whose reputation for insensitivity towards humans is legendary – as a dorky, almost tender lover of animals.

About Us: This week’s newsletter is written by Nicole Acheampong. The book she just borrowed is Flyboy in buttermilkby Greg Tate.

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Colin L. Johnson