Friday, November 23, 2012

Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top (non-fiction book) by Jerry Langton

Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top was one of my library checkouts. It's a non-fiction book.


I've been interested in rats for years, ever since an assignment in my undergraduate psychology class required me to train a rat to perform a series of tasks. Shortly after finishing that assignment, I got my first pet rat, and a year or two later I spent some time in Chicago, researching the city's rodent control program. When I spotted this book in the library, I decided to give it a shot. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a huge disappointment.

Given that Langton is a journalist, I wasn't expecting a very scholarly work. I figured he'd write about his experiences following around people who spent lots of time around rats and pepper his accounts with various well-known rat facts, like “their rib cages are collapsible” and “their teeth grow constantly.” Langton did a bit of that – he spoke with pet rat owners, sewer workers, exterminators, and biologists, and then spent time writing about some of the usual topics that come up in books about rats, like rat physiology, the diseases they can give to humans, and the various ways humans have tried to deal with them. One of the first things that annoyed me about this book, however, was that, although Langton occasionally referred to specific studies, experiments, and reports, he never bothered to cite them. Only the book's occasional “fact boxes” and the quotes that prefaced each chapter ever included sources.

I might not have minded the lack of citations so much if it Langton's biases hadn't been so obvious. He focused on the scariest stories and statistics he could find. My favorite example of one of the book's most meaningless attempts to scare readers is this: “According to a 1995 study, 10 to 100 percent of pet rats and 50 to 100 percent of the wild rats in any given population in North America carry the rat-bite fever virus.” (25) First, which 1995 study? Who conducted it? How was the study performed? Second, why were these numbers even worth citing? The range of percentages is so huge that, at best, all they really tell readers is that pet rats are far less likely to carry the disease than wild rats. Third, rat-bite fever is caused by bacteria, not a virus. I couldn't help but wonder how many other factual mistakes Langton included.

I found it aggravating that, anytime any of Langton's interviewees had something even a little positive to say about rats (or at least not wholly negative), he declared them wrong. When a sewer worker reassured him that the rats they encountered wouldn't bite him unless he picked them up, Langton wrote that he was wrong and went into detail about how rats have been known to bite sleeping people, often children, after smelling food on them. How, exactly, did any of that mean the sewer worker was wrong?

Langton was similarly dismissive of S. Anthony Barnett's opinion that George Orwell's “torture by box of rats” scene in 1984 had little connection to what would have happened in reality. Langton seemed to equate “even docile rats will sometime bite” with “the possibility of having your face eaten off by a box of rats is totally true.” Considering that Barnett had more personal experience with rats than Langton could ever dream of, and considering that Langton spelled Barnett's name wrong each and every time (he spelled it as “Barrett”), I'm more inclined to trust Barnett, thank you very much.

His dismissive, condescending attitude was most obvious when it came to pet rat owners. Supposedly, he spoke to 100 or so pet rat owners, and every single one of them was either an attention-seeking, outside-the-mainstream sort who delighted in the way “normal” people were freaked out by their rats or the kind of person who felt they should be patted on the back for caring for one of society's least-loved animals (I wonder, which category did Langton put Debbie Ducommun in?).

I had to wonder how Langton found these people, because they didn't sound like myself or any of the pet rat owners I've known. In my case, I owned rats because, at the time, fish or caged pets were my only option, and I found rats to be more affectionate and playful than most other rodents I'd had experience with. I rarely took my rats out into public and certainly didn't delight in owning a “weird” pet.

All in all, this is not a book I could recommend to anyone. Its bad editing and lack of documentation, combined with Langton's biases, means that none of its information can be trusted.

  • Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants (non-fiction book) by Robert Sullivan - It's been a while since I read this. From what I remember, it covered many of the same topics as Langton's book (except with notes on Sullivan's sources) and spent a bit more time than I would have liked on New York history.
  • The Story of Rats: Their Impact on Us, and Our Impact on Them (non-fiction book) by S. Anthony Barnett - Again, it's been a while since I read this. I remember it being a little drier than Langton or Sullivan's book, but still interesting. I especially liked that Barnett included information about rat behavior.
  • The Rat: A Study in Behavior (non-fiction book) by S.A. Barnett - I don't think I've read this, and I imagine it's probably drier than Sullivan or Langton's books. Still, for those interested in information on rats, it might be good to try.
  • Rat (non-fiction book) by Jonathan Burt - I haven't read this, but I'm familiar with the books in this series (Reaktion Animal series). This would probably be good for those looking for an overview of rat facts and information (including rats in literature, popular culture, etc., not just rats as animals).

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