Booksellers vs. Bestsellers
by Jamie Lutton
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Templeton is often the first talking rat that kids cross paths with. There aren’t talking rats in the Winnie the Pooh stories, for example, the first place where I encountered talking animals (even A. A. Milne would have trouble making a rat cute enough for parents to buy).
But in “Charlotte’s Web,” Templeton is in his natural environment, living in the barn by Wilbur’s stall, and acting like a rat. He skulks about underfoot, and eats garbage and old goose eggs that don’t hatch. Templeton is the character that gives a note of realism to the book; he’s the one tells Wilbur that he is being fattened for eating. Now, when I go back to “Charlotte’s Web,” it’s mostly to read what Templeton says, because of his trenchant, witty selfishness, and his cheerful gluttony. He makes an interesting foil for the spider Charlotte’s cerebral warm nature and the pig Wilbur’s innocence.
There are smart talking rats in “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” and smart mice in the Miss Bianca series as well as “The Cricket in Times Square.” And, of course, the rat character in the classic “The Wind in the Willows,” isn’t to be forgotten. In adult books, there is “Doctor Rat” by William Kotzwinkle, a dark novel narrated by a rat that is the survivor of horrible lab experiments – a plea by the author that lab animals be treated better. Wherever I look, I read remarks linking death and rats – The Black Death still dominates human history.
When you start looking, you see that the 20th century records the history of the world in staccato bursts: Ancient Egypt > Classical Greece and Rome >Jesus is born and dies > medieval Europe > rats and the Black Death > the New World > World War I, World War II > landing on the Moon > the present-day bang! It all seems like a smooth path of human progress, with humans more or less in control or, at least, fighting each other, except the Black Death, which was incomprehensible to the people that it ravaged. And I knew that it had something to do with rats.
The first book that I read on the topic was “Rats Lice and History,” by Hans Zinsser back in high school. It explained that rats spread The Black Death/Plague, which killed not only half the of the population in Europe in 1350, but came back again and again, knocking down the Europe’s population for 400 years. And humans, smart humans, didn’t have a clue about what caused it. Like the saying goes “life is a rat race, and the rats are winning.” The end of the book revealed that modern medicine found the cause and the cure through the use of the microscope, finding the culprit in the blood of rats, so that outbreaks could be stopped instead of just managed with quarantines.
Regarding the nature of rats, included among the books that I read and enjoyed is “Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants,” by Robert Sullivan. This book is filled with close observations of how rats behave in this city and thrive even though there are always active and sophisticated attempts to exterminate them. The books followed one dirty alley in Lower Manhattan, plus other cities like Chicago and Milwaukee.
“More Cunning Than Man: A Social History of Rats and Man,” by Robert Hendrickson, covers the whole history of the interlined lives of the rats and humans. It answers a lot of questions about why black and brown rats behave differently, how one species of rat supplanted the other, and the impact of the European rat on the New World and Far Pacific ecologies.
Then there’s “The Story of Rats: Their Impact on Us, and Our Impact on Them,” by S. Anthony Barnett, which spends time on the evolution of the white lab rat, where it came from, and the contribution that lab rats have made to science. Barnett spends a lot of time on rat behavior in the wild, and rat intelligence.
I recommend all of these books, as they each take a different perspective on the rat. The more you know, the more you respect them.
As a local note, the reason we aren’t overrun with rats on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the city is that at dawn, the time that rats move about, they’re picked off and eaten by crows. In the suburbs, it’s owls that are doing this work at night, and hawks in the daytime. Rats are constantly on the move looking for new homes, trying to expand their territory since they breed fast, but our local rat population is kept in check by hundreds and hundreds of hungry crows that like the taste of wild rat. Crows are, fortunately, even smarter than rats.