From the Bible’s “Canst thou raise leviathan with a hook?” to Captain Ahab’s “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!,” from the trials of Job to the legends of Sinbad, whales have breached in the human imagination as looming figures of terror, power, confusion, and mystery.
In the twentieth century, however, our understanding of and relationship to these superlatives of creation underwent some astonishing changes, and with The Sounding of the Whale, D. Graham Burnett tells the fascinating story of the transformation of cetaceans from grotesque monsters, useful only as wallowing kegs of fat and fertilizer, to playful friends of humanity, bellwethers of environmental devastation, and, finally, totems of the counterculture in the Age of Aquarius. When Burnett opens his story, ignorance reigns: even Nature was misclassifying whales at the turn of the century, and the only biological study of the species was happening in gruesome Arctic slaughterhouses. But in the aftermath of World War I, an international effort to bring rational regulations to the whaling industry led to an explosion of global research—and regulations that, while well-meaning, were quashed, or widely flouted, by whaling nations, the first shot in a battle that continues to this day. The book closes with a look at the remarkable shift in public attitudes toward whales that began in the 1960s, as environmental concerns and new discoveries about whale behavior combined to make whales an object of sentimental concern and public adulation.
A sweeping history, grounded in nearly a decade of research, The Sounding of the Whale tells a remarkable story of how science, politics, and simple human wonder intertwined to transform the way we see these behemoths from below.
About D. Graham BurnettSee more books from this Author
...what makes Burnett’s book notable is the big-picture arc he traces...Read Full Review of The Sounding of the Whale: Sc... | See more reviews from NY Times
Burnett avoids jargon and moralism. He writes about a tragedy in ways that allow for the role of irony and he does justice – this above all – to the complexity of his subject.Read Full Review of The Sounding of the Whale: Sc... | See more reviews from Guardian
This sad story takes up most of Mr. Burnett's book, which, at more than 700 pages, offers perhaps more detail than any lay reader requires.Read Full Review of The Sounding of the Whale: Sc... | See more reviews from WSJ online
For those whose engagement with cetaceans is limited to a whale-watching cruise now and then, or who watch The Day of the Dolphin in reruns, this book is probably too dense, too academic.Read Full Review of The Sounding of the Whale: Sc... | See more reviews from Globe and Mail
The Sounding of the Whale has many merits. Since Burnett is a historian of science, his main narrative follows the career of about half a dozen cetologists, showing how they began their studies almost completely ignorant of whales...Read Full Review of The Sounding of the Whale: Sc... | See more reviews from Globe and Mail