There are something like ninety books about reptiles and amphibians on my shelves, which I’ve accumulated over the past two decades. Almost all of them put the author’s expertise on the subject front and centre: these are books by hobbyists who have raised generations of reptiles in captivity, field naturalists with decades of experience finding them in the wild, or herpetologists with deep CVs and institutional authority. Credentials, in this field, matter. What, then, to make of Erica Wright’s Snake, out today from Bloomsbury, a slim volume from someone with no experience with them whatsoever?
Wright writes crime novels and poetry, edits a literary journal and teaches writing: not the profile of someone who writes a book of short essays on snakes. But she has gone and done that very thing. Snake, part of the Object Lessons series of short books “about the hidden lives of ordinary things,” is possibly the most different of all the books about snakes I have ever read, simply because she does not fit that profile. Snake is by someone who was wary if not afraid of them as a child, but came to them as an adult.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment when I decided to immerse myself in snake stories: grandmothers killing copperheads, rock stars injecting themselves with venom, and physicists studying sidewinders. Perhaps it started with my 2013 road trip to the Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival in Claxton, Georgia, or just as likely with seeing my first anaconda—impossibly large and surprisingly active—at the Tennessee Aquarium. A decade ago, I spent a summer obsessed with Titanoboa, a prehistoric marvel clocking in at around forty feet and weighing over a ton. My childhood was filled with close encounters, and I’m sufficiently embarrassed by the number of times I jumped at discarded snakeskins (or even occasionally a thin stick). I better remember the moment my phobia was pricked with sympathy: watching video footage of rattlesnakes being brutalized for sport at what’s called a roundup. I’d never thought much about people killing snakes before, but seeing the animals slaughtered in front of a cheering crowd, hands full of corndogs and hearts full of bloodlust, flipped a switch inside me.Erica wright, Snake, pp. xii-xii.
In their multiple field guides about snakes, Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas make the point that peoples’ attitudes about snakes are strongly polarized: they either adore them or despise them; there’s very little in between. (Most people are neutral toward lizards; everybody likes turtles.) Most of us started young and began proselytizing at our classmates; Wright is coming to the subject both late and from the other group. She has a lot of catching up to do, and Snake is the diary of her journey. It’s a personal book describing her attempts to encompass the subject.
Because it’s an Object Lessons book, she only has 25,000 to 30,000 words in which to do it. Wright covers a lot of territory in a hundred and ten pages, most of which is familiar to me but new and astonishing to her. The book’s brevity necessitates a hummingbird’s attention span: a single chapter may segue between several related subjects; chapter six starts with Versace and passes through considerations of Medusa and leather before ending up talking about the Florida python problem, for example.
It’s also a book that focuses less on the biology and more on the cultural freight. Because there is a ton of cultural freight involved with snakes; and outside books on rattlesnakes, or attempts to debunk old myths in the hopes of having fewer snakes get killed, other books don’t pay nearly enough attention to that question. It’s a subject few old hands handled well, but it’s one that interests me a great deal, and I’m happy to see Wright grapple, for example, with the symbolism of snakes in the post-Irwin era, where social media is full of sneks and danger noodles with snoots to boop.
But it’s too brief and too introductory—for me. This is a rare book about snakes: one that is not for me. Those who’ve spent their lives with snakes will find this book a bit exasperating, like an Olympic athlete listen to a new swimmer extolling the virtues of water. But if it’s introductory, it’s also not for children. It’s a rare thing: a beginner snake book firmly for adults. The market for such a book is uncertain, but it is also certainly untapped.
I received an electronic review copy from the publisher via Netgalley.