by Hugh Gilmore
To whom should book or arts reviewers answer? Their editors? The readers of their column? The authors/artists? Perhaps the paying public?]
All week long I’ve anticipated writing, “This is a god-awful book I had to force myself to keep reading even though it has lots of interesting facts about mosquitoes.” So, there, I said it and I’m glad. But you might wonder why would I pick up and read a “godawful” book. It wasn’t an assignment, after all.
So, I’d say, I chose it because the cover shows an ominous, blown-up picture of a mosquito ready to bite. The subtitle is laid out in high-thought style. It looks like the kind of book you’d pick up and browse if you saw it on a shelf. I also like books about natural history. And, finally, I like books that show how human events can be affected by small, unanticipated factors – in this case, mosquito-borne diseases.
I saw “The Mosquito” on the new-arrivals shelf of two bookstores this summer and almost bought it. Then, last week I had to go and sit somewhere for a while so I bought it for Kindle reading.
The opening pages are genuinely frightening. The story is compelling. I plunged in. Before long, however, the author’s continual comparison of mosquitoes to soldiers grew monotonous. And soon after that, ridiculous: “A swarming and consuming army of 110 trillion enemy mosquitoes patrols every inch of the globe … the biting female warriors … are armed with at least fifteen lethal and debilitating biological weapons.”
We humans prepare our “defense budget” to “stymie her unrelenting raids” and “crimes against humanity,” but she remains “the deadliest hunter of human beings on the planet … an endless barrage of desolation and death … the mosquito has been on the front lines of history as the grim reaper … insatiable … has ambushed man with unmitigated fury … drove the events of human history to create our present reality.”
That is the tone of the book through most of its 496 pages. Worse, in an attempt to keep coming at you with these mosquito facts, the book reads like a bottom-of-the-TV-screen crawl. I guess you’d call this style “the author’s enthusiasm for his subject,” but it feels more like a tactic – used by people like Wolf Blitzer or Walter Winchell, for example: coming at you head-on and nonstop so that you can’t keep up with the loose logic or blurred storyline.
And further: I don’t know if it matters to writing teachers anymore – or readers – but the majority of the sentences of this book are constructed from clichés.
For example: “Yet, no matter how hard we try, the mosquito will always find the chink in our armor and nip our Achilles heel.”
Another: “The relatively sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs allowed the few dazed but determined survivors to rise from the ashes to eke out an existence in a dark, unforgiving wasteland.”
And: “[The mosquito] and her diseases have stalked us through our evolutionary tree with dexterous Darwinian precision.”
These examples were taken from within the first “3%” of the Kindle’s contents. Obviously, the author, Timothy C. Winegard, cares more about being vivid than being precise in his storytelling. Some people might not care, but I do. It disturbs me to read those autofill-like sentences, especially when they’re embedded in a subject I enjoy learning about.
Winegard’s book reads like a college-level term paper. He’s gathered hundreds, maybe thousands, of facts about mosquitoes and how the diseases they carry have affected human history. But he’s done little, if any, original thinking in pulling this information together. In fact, he’s lifted the work of people who’ve done original work in historical epidemiology and rehashed it in a clichéd manner. And he’s not received a critical review since the book emerged in August.
To his credit, he does reference writers like Hans Zinsser (“Rats, Lice and History,” 1935) and Jared Diamond, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” 1997). However, the various reviewers and interviewers who’ve helped publicize “The Mosquito: A Human History” nearly all refer to it as an original work. Erroneously, they credit Winegard with connecting the effect of mosquito-borne diseases on the flow of history.
I can only think this has happened for two reasons. First, the reviewers did not know much about the subject beforehand. Second, reviewing is part of a vast billion-dollar industry and meant to keep the flow moving. Go along to get along. And who are we to quibble with a Penguin Random House original (2019)? Besides, if the book is just so-so, why would the editors at Penguin put so much time and marketing effort (aka: money) into pap? (Hint: This is America 2019, but never mind.)
Ultimately, the reviewer’s obligation is to give the paying customer a fair warning. So here goes: If you are new to the idea that insects spread disease on a vast global scale and have always done so, this book might provide you with a fascinating and intensive introduction to this subject. If you are already familiar with this train of thought, save your money and order it from the library. If you get annoyed or distracted by cliché-larded writing, just read the bibliography at the end of this book – it’s the best-written part. And it will guide you to some good intellectual history books.
Hugh Gilmore is a former biological anthropologist who studied wildlife in the Caribbean and Kenya. He lives and writes in Chestnut Hill.