Bookshelves at Powell's in Portland

I recently got around to reading Voyage of the Beagle by Mr. Charles Darwin, and can report to you that is interesting and fun, and well worth your time. He was quite the adventurer, and got into all kinds of crazy and dangerous situations, but never lost his can-do attitude and unruffled demeanor. A true naturalist, everything held his interest, from the geology of atolls to differences in beak shapes among island populations of birds. Although he suffered terribly from sea-sickness and a tropical bug he picked up along the way, he observed and collected, gathering materials that would lead him to one of humanity’s greatest advances of understanding. And like I said, it’s fun to read. So much so that by end of it I was immersed in his voice.

Green insect
My observation of this green insect yielded no discoveries.

After that I grabbed another sea-voyage book, Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. This is fun as well, but let’s be honest – ┬áit’s a giant step down from Darwin. Not only was the material much lighter, the Darwin Voice was gone. Where’s my intrepid friend and his genial and accurately detailed narration? This didn’t even seem like a book, in comparison to Beagle. That was a Book. All other works of literature were something else, not a Book. So I went down to the bookstore to get another one, On the Origin of Species.

The voice was still there in Book Two, but Origin is a more demanding read than our voyage on the Beagle. It’s basically a series of arguments, all framed so as to be fatal to his theory of descent with modification (he never uses the word evolution in the first edition of the book), and his breakthrough concept of natural selection as the mechanism behind it. And he’s still such a good naturalist. In his section on seed dispersal he talks about his experiments at home, floating various seeds in saltwater for months to test his ideas of how plants make their way around the globe. Here and there you will hear his excitement coming through at what he was onto here. You can almost feel the thrill of his discovery, as each argument against his theory is dispatched and his great idea becomes stronger.

It is especially thrilling to read and imagine the effects this book had on the world when it was published. There was the world before this book, and the world after.

Finding more of Mr. Darwin’s voice will not be quite as easy. He did write other books, but they are not often found on your bookstore shelves. I am interested in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”, but less so in “The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Actions of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits”, or his two volumes on barnacles. So it’s back to the regular print materials written by people other than Charles Darwin.

Update! This just in from another Book reader. You can find Mr. Darwin’s works over on Project Gutenberg, including the more obscure titles not easily found at your neighborhood bookstore. The book on Emotions in Man and Animals includes this nice illustration of a mellow cat from days gone by.


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