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26 september 2011

Richard J. King's Lobster is more "voice-driven" than others in the Reaktion Animal series, and though I don't usually like such books, this one is charming, clever, and informative all at the same time. It's a matter-of-fact tour through lobster lore that manages to convey aesthetic appreciation of the creature and what people have made of it (in many senses). But Lobster doesn't wax mystical or theoretical. It conveys a love of the lobster, and serves as a gateway to the limited range of lobster literature beyond.

King's Lobster complements Elisabeth Townsend's Lobster in the Edible series. Indeed the books overlap, unavoidably: in theme, sometimes in detail, and here and there in choice of illustration. Only a lobster completist would want both, but I am very glad to have read both.

Lobsters are deeply mysterious creatures. Apparently immortal, they can grow to hideous proportions. King shows how they populate our dreams. Our fears of the deep are sometimes stuffed into lobster shells: unlike other sea monsters, they have inquisitive eyes and opposable thumbs. They do not speak, but that paradoxically makes them the more anthropomorphic: it's as if they would say something if they could, something we would doubtless misunderstand. For Salvador Dali, they represented sex. (Of course, few things did not represent sex for Dali.) For Lewis Carroll, they represented the unconscious: Alice in Wonderland channeled the voice of the lobster.

They represent eating, of course, and also an artisanal, small-business approach to fishing that is one of the last old-school sustainable food-gathering enterprises. Nobody really knows why the Maine lobster fishery is sustainable. The more millions that are caught, the more and more millions seem to appear. This may be the crest before the crash, or it may be that by a confluence of factors, fishing for lobsters itself (along with overfishing of predator species like cod and haddock) has led to an inadvertent sustainable aquaculture.

King has a history with lobsters, having fished some for them himself, and having sold them to consumers in his youth with the stock assurance that they just came in this morning. King now teaches literature of the sea, and is well-placed to survey lobster texts. His favorite is a spare, slightly awed poem by George Mackay Brown, called simply "Lobster," that addresses the animal's power as it moves

from smithy to smithy, in your season
For an ampler riveting. (qtd. 136)

King meets several (human) lobster characters in his quest after lobsters, but has the good sense to keep them subordinate to the clawy crustaceans themselves. Among the memorable people in Lobster is a biologist named Jonathan Geller, who nonchalantly dissects a lobster for King in the name of science, and later boils it for dinner.

Unlike other Reaktion books, the two Lobsters have actually left me less hungry for the food they discuss. I'd be just as happy to leave lobsters alone to their own devices. I'm not quite sure why. It can't be empathy for their slaughter. I feed my neighbor's hens every day and have become fond of them, but I am planning to make a curry tonight with (store-bought) chicken.

No, it's perhaps an appreciation for the lobster's cold, lonely, and veteran life at sea. A big lobster is one of the oldest animals you're ever likely to eat. Lobster farming is both unnecessary (so far) and uneconomical: you can raise fish, chickens, even steers in a fraction of a time it takes a lobster to grow to prime dimensions. I like to think of big lobsters out in beds far beyond the range of fishermen, growing, moulting, growing again, and waiting out the decades in silence.

King, Richard J. Lobster. London: Reaktion, 2011.