Book Review: “The Book of Eels” by Patrik Svensson

The New York Times referred to this surprise best-seller by Swedish journalist Patrik Svensson as ‘strange and nerdy.’  I just loved it.

It is part natural history, part memoir, and all about eels.   Even if you know or care nothing about eels before reading the book (like me), you will be amazed to learn that eels are probably one of the few creatures on earth that are still largely a mystery to scientists, even to those who have studied them for years.   The author recounts the work of many renowned thinkers — from Aristotle to Freud to Rachel Carson — who were obsessed with the mysteries of the eel.  Did you know that no one has ever seen an eels mating or giving birth?  Do you know that they can travel on land as well as in water (both salt and fresh)?  Do you know that their lives start and end in the same place, after long journeys elsewhere in Europe and the United States?  Do you know they are now critically endangered, not just because of global warming, but because as a food product they are in great demand in places like Japan and in the Basque region of Spain?

Svensson alternates discussing the finer points of the eel’s natural history and its current endangerment with his own memoir about eels.  The memoir chapters are an hommage to his now-deceased working-class father.  Svensson and his dad bonded over eel fishing throughout their lives, often adventuring late at night in the stream near their home. Father taught son tried and true methods for catching these elusive creatures, but also made adventures with less successful eeling methods involving trapping and netting.  We learn how his father liked them cooked, about eels in literature, and about the history of eel-fishing on the coast of Sweden.   The book ends on a memoir chapter that I found almost unbelievable because it was so perfect. 

Unlike many natural histories, The Book of Eels is brief and readable.  Yet it is comprehensive enough to make you realize how crazy it is that scientists still can’t explain everything about the life cycle of this kind-of-creepy creature.  You will easily read the book in a day, and I guarantee you will come away feeling more interested in and better educated about eels.  

Review by Roberta Jordan, Assistant Director.

Click here to request a copy.


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