It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.
In past years I listed a number of fiction and nonfiction parings but this year I’m taking a different approach. I’d like to feature two outstanding books, one fiction and one nonfiction I feel not only compliment each other but are dear favorites of mine.
Set in the indeterminate near future, Kirsten Bakis’s 1997 science fiction novel Lives of the Monster Dogs is the horribly tragic but beautiful story of what happens when a group of artificially enhanced canines possessing human-level intelligence, speech, bipedalism and manual dexterity emerge from their secret arctic colony and descend upon New York City. Created to be super soldiers by the followers of a mad Prussian surgeon, after revolting against their former human overlords the dogs make New York their new home, becoming instant, albeit reluctant celebrities thanks to their astounding nature as well as their substantial wealth and old-world sophisticated charm. The story is told through the eyes of Cleo Pira, a young college student turned journalist tasked with writing an article about Gotham’s newest exceptional residents. Jeff Vandermeer, writing in the Atlantic 20 years after the novel’s publication praised both its beauty and the important questions it raised. “The horror and unease in the narrative derives in part from its verisimilitude in conveying the grotesque and in part the blurring of the animal and the human, resulting in a fascinating exploration of both.”
For years we’ve always assumed what separates humans from animals is our greater intelligence, exemplified by a number of attributes including our tool usage, ability to communicate and sense of self. But what if the honest evidence shows us throughout the animal kingdom there are examples of creatures acting intelligently. Would it not, to quote Vandermeer point to a blurring of the animal and the human?
No work of nonfiction explores this blurring, and with it the fascinating world of animal cognition like Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In his 2016 book (which easily made my 2017 year-end Favorite Nonfiction List) de Waal makes a convincing case the gap between many species of animals and humans, cognitively speaking, is surprising narrow. Understandably, this threatens our species’ sense of exceptionalism and primacy. Moreover, the latest research shows us this gap is growing narrower all the time.
There you have it, two great books that go great together. Now do yourself a favor and read them both.