A Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award
Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
A New York Times Notable Book
One of TIME’s 100 Must Read Books of the Year
One of The Washington Post’s 50 Notable Nonfiction Books of the Year
One of Smithsonian Magazine’s 10 Best Science Books of the Year
One of Publishers Weekly’s Best Nonfiction Books of the Year
A New York Times Editor’s Choice
Part H Is for Hawk, part The Soul of an Octopus, The Book of Eels is both a meditation on the world’s most elusive fish—the eel—and a reflection on the human condition
Remarkably little is known about the European eel, Anguilla anguilla. So little, in fact, that scientists and philosophers have, for centuries, been obsessed with what has become known as the “eel question”: Where do eels come from? What are they? Are they fish or some other kind of creature altogether? Even today, in an age of advanced science, no one has ever seen eels mating or giving birth, and we still don’t understand what drives them, after living for decades in freshwater, to swim great distances back to the ocean at the end of their lives. They remain a mystery.
Drawing on a breadth of research about eels in literature, history, and modern marine biology, as well as his own experience fishing for eels with his father, Patrik Svensson crafts a mesmerizing portrait of an unusual, utterly misunderstood, and completely captivating animal. In The Book of Eels, we meet renowned historical thinkers, from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud to Rachel Carson, for whom the eel was a singular obsession. And we meet the scientists who spearheaded the search for the eel’s point of origin, including Danish marine biologist Johannes Schmidt, who led research efforts in the early twentieth century, catching thousands upon thousands of eels, in the hopes of proving their birthing grounds in the Sargasso Sea.
Blending memoir and nature writing at its best, Svensson’s journey to understand the eel becomes an exploration of the human condition that delves into overarching issues about our roots and destiny, both as humans and as animals, and, ultimately, how to handle the biggest question of all: death. The result is a gripping and slippery narrative that will surprise and enchant.
Svensson, a Swedish journalist, melds the personal and scientific in this captivating look at the European eel. He describes the fish's intricate life cycle, as only recently uncovered by science: hatched as a tiny leaf-shaped larva in the Sargasso Sea, they grow into a fragile, transparent "glass eel" and are carried across the Gulf Stream to Europe, where they grow "serpentine and muscular" in streams and rivers, before an unknown instinct triggers them to travel back across the Atlantic to the Sargasso, where they reproduce and die. The puzzles surrounding the species Svensson observes that their reproduction process is still mysterious have long fascinated students of zoology, from Aristotle to Freud; the latter was obsessed as a teenager with finding the male's sex organ, and failing to do so (Svensson speculates) may have led to him taking up psychoanalysis instead. Svensson alternates these scientific and historical passages with moving reminiscences of being taught to fish for eels by his father in a stream near their home, and with reflections on eels as a human food source and on current efforts to conserve them. Nature-loving readers will be enthralled by Svensson's fascinating zoological odyssey.