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whale

3 march 2011

Most of Joe Roman's Whale is about whaling, which makes sense in terms of the Reaktion Books Animal series mission to study how various kinds of animals have figured in human culture. Whales are ecologically remote from humans, often effectively invisible. Aside from the occasional porpoise or baby beluga, and the splashy Shamu at Sea World, I've never seen a whale – and I've never seen a "great" whale at all. Pretty much any land animal can be shown in a zoo, but the whales of the open ocean are perceptible only in glimpses from the shore or from coastal whale-watching boats. Unless, that is, you head off to the ends of the earth, harpoon in hand, fixing to kill them.

One of the longer books in the Reaktion series, Whale bids to be a comprehensive cultural history of whaling. Exploiting whales is an ancient phenomenon. People have used parts of beached whales since forever. The value of bones, baleen, and blubber led to coastal whaling, which can be done with Stone Age technology: just keep a lookout, row out with your harpoon, and in the simplest case, wait for the wounded mammal to wash up later.

The success of coastal whaling led to further and further voyages in search of whales – first, with the aim of bringing home fresh elements of the whale for processing ashore, then aboard ships where whales could be rendered into clean oil and stored for years. Ultimately, in the 20th century, factory ships with harpoon cannons could process a whale in a matter of hours into various near shelf-ready products.

I've commented before on the horror that was whale-oil margarine in the mid-20th-century. It now seems absurd that, with vast acreages across the world available for oil crops, whalers should have chased the largest and most remote creatures in the ocean so that Europeans and North Americans could enjoy low-priced sandwich spread. But margarine drove 20th-century whaling, just as candlewax drove the hunt in the 19th.

Not that margarine was the only motive for modern whaling. One of the weirder images in the smartly-produced Whale shows a woman in striped skirt, blouse, and pearls fondling a block of spermaceti. "It is now prized as a base for cosmetics, says caption to the 1950s-looking photograph (144). The block in the woman's arms is one of dozens that stretch across the photo, out of sight into both background and foreground. She seems delighted. The whales were unavailable for comment.

Like all the Reaktion series, Whale is absolutely beautiful. It's also got a literate and strongly narrative text. But there are editing errors, as too often creep into Reaktion books. One egregious error in Whale comes on p. 87, where Roman announces "The year 1850: Edgar Allen Poe and John James Audubon have just died in New York City." The misspelling "Allen" for "Allan" is bad enough, but it's just proofreading. Having Poe die in New York is a fact-checking problem – maybe Roman's, maybe a copy-editor's. Poe, of course, died in Baltimore, as we're reminded every year when the "Poe Toaster" leaves (or, more recently, doesn't leave) birthday gifts on the poet's grave.

Roman, Joe. Whale. London: Reaktion, 2006.

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