Wednesday, 2 September 2015

My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek Review (Unread 022)

I read very few non-fiction books. I’m not sure why. There are plenty of subjects I find interesting. Of those subjects, many books have been written by writers who I’m sure did plenty of research and presented those already interesting subjects in a way that gave them new life. I’m not talking based on my experience reading non-fiction books, it’s just the probability of numbers. Like many young adults who grew up with the internet boom of the nineties, I’ve been bombarded every which way by information and because of it I have interests in many different fields of knowledge. Fiction has always been a dominating interest, maybe because of its inherent entertainment value. Growing up, I’ve always enjoyed learning but since I’ve finished high school, the amount of free time I have has been reduced and I’d rather spend my time being entertained than learning, no matter how curious I might be about a particular subject.

It’s not to say I’ve forgone any opportunity to learn, more that I’ve narrowed the time in which I give myself the chance to research and explore. The number of non-fiction books I read in comparison to fiction novels is very, very small. It’s a ratio of about one book in fifty. After creating a Goodreads account and tracking my annual reading progress, I’ve come to realize just how few non-fiction books I read. I’ve attempted to rectify that by buying a few non-fiction books in the recent past but I’ve yet to really read many of them. This year, I’ve managed to read one. I know, that’s not very impressive nor does it present a change in reading behaviour, but it’s a start.

That book was My Beloved Brontosaurus and I have nothing but good things to say about it. The best way to describe it is a solid introduction to the world of dinosaur for scientifically inclined readers. It’s clear, it’s simple, and it’s very informative. The simplicity makes it an approachable book that new fans as well as long-time fans of dinosaurs can enjoy, though I admit there is probably more to discover and learn here for new fans. That’s not a criticism per se because that is likely true of all books on the subject. There is a key distinction as to why this book in particular, compared to similar offerings by other authors, is better suited for new readers. It’s inviting and doesn’t let itself drown in scholarly language. The way the information is presented, rather than the facts themselves, are what make this book approachable and an easy read. The world of paleontology and dinosaur sciences is very complicated. Switek presents enough historical context in this book to make that clear. Thankfully, he also takes the time to make it clear to his readers just how fucking awesome this particular field of study is.

I want to avoid making it sound like My Beloved Brontosaurus is amateurish in style and content. It really isn’t. Rather, Switek takes the time to be very structure in his approach of the book. One of my favourite things about the book is its structure. My appreciation for it works on two levels. First off, I like the way the chapters are organized. Starting with a prologue, the author follows with ten chapters that outline dinosaur’s evolutionary origins, followed by a chapter on the subject of mating and reproduction. Those are followed by chapters discussing the way juvenile dinosaurs changed as they grew into adults, how their societies were structure, how dinosaurs further evolved to include proto-feathers, etc. He follows a sort of chronology that tracks a dinosaur’s life. At the same time he also recounts the history of dinosaur discoveries and theories based a chapter’s subject, they also included information on new discoveries being made in recent years. That chronology can be seen throughout the book, providing the reader with a nice thematic consistency, but it’s also present in each individual chapter.

Each chapter is also nicely structured. Switek introduces the particular subject of the chapter and provides commentary on the historical theories before moving on to modern interpretation based on more recent research, papers, or discoveries. The conclusion often leads into the subject of the following chapter and recaps the one that just ended. Not only does this structure give each new chapter a sense of familiarity (the same structure is used), it’s also an excellent way to offer deeper knowledge about the subject of each chapter. I particularly enjoyed how using this approach allowed Switek to make the study of dinosaur fossil feel very vibrant and alive. It’s a field of study that continues to progress and change with surprising regularity even though the fossilized evidenced used in the research hasn’t changed in millennia.

The structure paired with Switek’s casual, almost conversational, writing style gives the book its strength as an educational and informative book. More importantly, it makes for an extremely readable book. It’s the kind of book that will keep you reading past your bedtime. That’s some rather cliché praise but I’m not talking about the latest bestselling thrillers, I’m talking about a work of non-fiction. Case in point, I read this book back in February during the week I got married. During one of the most important weeks of my life, I was compulsively reading a book about dinosaurs and talking to my then wife-to-be about it. Being the loving and caring person she is, she tried her best to show real interest in what I was saying even if it’s not really the kind of thing she enjoys. I also spent many hours texting one of my closest friends about the fascinating stuff I was learning.

While reading My Beloved Brontosaurus, it was quite apparent just how passionate Brian Switek is about dinosaurs. This passion found its way onto the page and gave the book quite a bit of energy. It’s also pretty casual in style and delivery.  It’s got a mellow flow and a road trip like feel to it. There are nicely rendered and informative illustrations peppered throughout and the slip cover folds out into a lovingly painted poster of Switek feeding his beloved Brontosaurus. After finishing, I’m left wondering how long the recent theories mentioned in the book will remain at the forefront of dinosaur studies. I really liked that Switek talked about old and new theories and research, but this type of book is a ticking time bomb of misinformation. I’m thinking particularly of the debate between the scientific names of Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, both names long thought to describe the very same dinosaur. Just a few weeks after finishing the book I happened upon an article that argues Brontosaurs really is a distinct dino and not just another name for Apatosaurus. I guess it doesn’t really matter all that much if you, like Switek, continue to follow new research and stay at the forefront of dinosaur knowledge. At the very least, My Beloved Brontosaurus will survive as a good introduction to dinosaur lovers of many different ages. And if you don’t want to follow dinosaur research on your own, you can simply follow Switek’s freelance writing online. He’s literally the poster child for dinosaur fan turned freelance professional writer specializing in dinosaurs.

If my reading habits have taught me anything is that the non-fiction books I tend to really enjoy are those that mix entertainment and non-fiction. In the last few years I’ve enjoyed a few collections of essays on comics (particularly those published by Sequart (LINK), a rock star autobiography by Anthony Kiedis, Dragonwriter: A Tribute to Anne McCaffrey, and a collection of essays about Star Trek. Mixing my childhood love of dinosaurs with a serious, yet also very approachable, re-introduction into the science of dinosaurs was an excellent way to establish a long term relationship with the non-fiction section of the nearby book store. Better yet, reading a book like My Beloved Brontosaurus offers plenty of other books to read all linked to the one you’ve just finished. If your dinosaur curiosity is not satiated with this particular book alone, you can easily find additional reading material by look at the notes section which lists plenty of sources, organized by chapter and page number. This book is just the introduction and I’ll make sure not to let my interests in non-fiction books disappear like the majestic dinosaurs of old. 

Disclosure: My little sister bought me this book at Christmas because she was my not-so-secret Santa and I pressured her into it. She made fun of me, we had a good laugh, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. She didn't ask that I give it an honest review. She's just happy I read it.

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