March 2010

Melissa A. Barton


Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles

Anthropologist Hugh Raffles set out to write an anecdotal “encyclopedia” of insects; Insectopedia has one essay for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, only loosely (if at all connected). But the essays are not at all encyclopedic in style, nor is the Insectopedia by any stretch of the imagination comprehensive in its treatment of insects. As Raffles writes in the introduction: 

Pollinators, pests, disease vectors, decomposers, laboratory animals, prime objects of scientific attention, experimentation, and intervention. The stuff of dreams and nightmares. The stuff of economy and culture… There are too many insects, uncountable numbers, more all the time… They’ll almost never do what we tell them to do. 

The essays cover a wide range of topics, from insect ecology to anthropology, history, and art, ranging in scope from essays focused on a single artist or scientist, a single species of insect, to essays about the role of certain insects to entire countries. Raffles spent years traveling and researching this book, and many of the stories contain a strong personal element. Most of the book is gorgeous, fascinating, and thought-provoking, revealing amazing stories about both the meanings of insects in human culture and their own remarkable adaptations.  

Raffles covers both a broad range of insect-related topics and a number of different countries with different relationships with insects. His writing is elegant and often beautiful, a pleasure to read when the topic is happy; clear and explanatory for difficult subjects; and viscerally disturbing and graphic when the topic is unpleasant. It is never boring, and Raffles has a gift for striking, vivid imagery: 

A hundred yards away on the far bank, under the heavy trees, which just yesterday had sheltered a broken wooden house, the poorest on the river, was a shimmering jewel, a glittering vision of fluttering yellow, canary yellow, corn silk yellow, golden yellow. Flecks of gold were spinning from it like cinders high into the dark forest.

Some chapters are horrifying or gruesome (and equally vivid) -- that on the equation of Jews with lice in Nazi Germany, or the “Sex” chapter, on a sexual fetish that involves crushing small animals to death.  Insects, Raffles observes, are often viewed as not-animals, killed casually and without remorse. Even the political and social outcry about “crushing” was not about the “vermin” typically featured in videos, but the possibility that creatures more worthy of sympathy might eventually be killed. And when humans are equated with -- not just compared to, but seen as identical to -- insects, it justifies treating them the same way.

While many of the essays focus on historical entomologists or insect artists (including two of my favorites, 16th century miniaturist Joris Hoefnagel and 17th century entomological illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian), some of the most memorable and thought-provoking essays explore important environmental and ecological issues through the lens of human-insect interaction.   

These include insects as first warnings of the danger of low-level radiation (here the parallels between Cornelia Hesse-Honegger and Merian are interesting: both women, both artists, and it’s not clear which was less worthy of respect to the scientific establishment), the cricket fighting scene in China, locusts and grasshopper as both valued food source and agricultural disaster in Nigeria, and the U.S. bark beetle epidemic as a sign and symptom of global warming. 

There are a few jarring notes -- a handful of short anecdotes that seem out of place, some occasional oddly hyperbolic language -- and some chapters that may be too horrible or disgusting for some readers (I admit, the “Sex” chapter dampened my enjoyment of the book temporarily). But these are minor and as much a matter of personal taste on the part of the reader as anything else. 

Insectopedia is a stunning, sensitively written, insightful book that draws together diverse fields and views into a richly complex story about people and the mysterious insects we live with, comfortably and uncomfortably. Raffles set out to write a book about how people learn something new about themselves through relationships with insects, and he succeeded admirably. 

At the end, the insects cry, “Don’t leave us out! Don’t forget about us!” It is indeed a disappointment that there isn’t room for all of them in a single book, but what is here -- 26 essays, countless insects and people and their diversity of stories -- is engrossing enough.

Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles
Pantheon Books
ISBN: 9780375423864
480 Pages