How does one review a book written by a friend? I guess one doesn’t, so this is not an “official” review, but a personal blog recommendation, and you can make up your own mind. Perhaps the best recommendation is the sheer fact that I have finished the book. Lately, with busy life and online addiction (and likely ADHD) I have been starting many books, but finishing none.
But I finished My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs (amazon) by Brian Switek (homepage, blog, Twitter) today and I am glad I did.
Many of us, decades ago, got excited about nature, science and yes, dinosaurs, by reading books like The New Golden Treasury of Natural History. While a few went on to become dinosaur paleontologists, for most of the others life and career took a different turn, and they perhaps think that what they learned as kids still stands today.
I may be somewhere in the middle. Although I did research in biology, dinosaurs were not the focus – I took one graduate-level class on them just for fun. I try to keep abreast with the advances in dinosaur research, but I am not in the field and can’t pay attention to every detail and every new paper. Which is why I read Brian’s blog (and a few other paleo blogs), read an occasional book (like Brian’s), and, if I can, I go to a meeting where I can quickly get up to date (e.g., 2012 SVP in Raleigh as it was next door, so no big travel arrangements or costs).
Brian’s first book, Written in Stone, was written more for people like me, at least somewhat uber-geeks of all things fossil. But the second book is bound to be a gripping read to a much broader audience than just us geeks.
The first book had quite a lot of Latin language, and lots of detailed taxonomy and systematics. I understand why this is important, and I understand why some people get excited about it (and I certainly enjoyed reading it myself, but I am a geek). But I have always seen taxonomy as a nifty, sophisticated, high-tech scaffolding on which the actual building will be built…and I was always more interested in the building itself. Not so much how various species of dinosarus were related to each other, as what we can learn from those patterns about the mechanisms by which evolution works.
The second book is all about the building! Not so much how dinos were related, but why. How they evolved. How their extinction can give us clues as to how they lived. And, to me, the most interesting aspects of paleontology are figuring out the way dinosaurs lived – their physiology, behavior and ecology, from the way they sensed their environment, or communicated with each other, to the way they looked, mated, raised young and grew up. And Brian’s book covers all of this, vividly, and will leave you not just better informed, but excited as if you were five years old all over again.
If your busy life prevents you from digging in and finding all the details for yourself, yet you’d like to know how the understanding of dinosaurs changed since you were a kid, Brian’s book is a perfect solution. There, in one place, and written in a way that makes reading fun, is everything you need to know to get caught up. You will not become an expert, but you won’t be hopelessly out-of-date any more.
And you will be shocked how the world has changed since you were a kid reading Bertha Morris Parker – our understanding of dinos is very, very different and much, much better today than it was just a couple of decades ago. The green, scaly monsters who deservedly died of their own oversized stupidity when the asteroid struck, are now stuff of dusty old books and memories, not the animals we understand them now to be. You will be viscerally struck by realization how fast science can move while you are not watching!
If you have kids of your own, and you are starting to introduce them to dinosaurs through museum visits, books, or blogs, reading this book first will save your face in your kids’ world. You will save yourself from the embarassment of your own kid telling you, loudly in front of everyone at the museum, “Moooooom! That is not true! It didn’t have green scales, it had black feathers!”
If you are a kid yourself, just starting on the journey of love for dinosaurs, nature and science, this is a great primer, putting in one place, in easy, non-technical language, the current knowledge about dinosaurs, how it changed over the past decades (and centuries), how we know what we know about them today, and what are still the outstanding questions – perhaps there for you to solve.
It was also interesting for me to read this book for other reasons. This is the first time I have read a book in which, I feel, it’s my world, I am there in a way, right there in the book. When Brian mentions visiting a dinosaur quarry after a meeting in Flagstaff, I was at that meeting. When he writes how he snuck early into Yale’s Peabody museum to converse with the Apatosaurus before the other conference goers arrived to drink wine from plastic cups, I was one of those with a plastic cup. When he talks about the press-only preview of the AMNH Giant Dino exhibit, I was there, snapping fuzzy iPhone photos (including one of Brian himself). When he mentions artist Glendon Mellow, I know the guy. It is kinda weird to read a book that happens in a world that so tightly overlaps with my own!
But one thing I was thinking as I was closing the back cover of the book was: how awesome it must be to be a kid today! If stupid, fern-munching, pond-wading Brontosaurs of the 1960s could excite me and so many others, how much more exciting it must be for today’s kids to enter straight into the world of flashy, feathered, super-fast, super-smart dinosaurs! Not just weird-looking, long-dead monsters of the past, but incredibly sophisticated and exciting animals that, if they were not so darned unlucky, could have still ruled the Earth today, and deservedly so, without you or me around to study them and discuss them.
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