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Being a Beast Paperback – 4 Aug 2016
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Transcendentally eccentric nature writing of the first order. Charles Foster digs deep under the skin of other animals, uncovering gems of wisdom that our usually superficial gaze will otherwise miss (Hugh Warwick)
Gleefully lascivious in its physical curiosity, Being a Beast advocates for our highest animality by expanding our sensory intelligence. A flabbergasting, thunderstriking, stupendous, brilliant book (Jay Griffiths)
Thrilling, brilliant, bonkers... a strange kind of masterpiece: the song of a satyr, perhaps, or nature writing as extreme sport. (Financial Times)
Charles Foster's chronicle of the sensory lives of beasts and his own forays into self re-wilding is like nothing you have ever read. Deeply serious and at times laugh-out-loud funny, this is an extraordinary book. (Caspar Henderson)
Unimaginably different from any book you have ever read - an exploration of our deep kinship with animals that is thought-provoking, funny and full of adventure all at once, brilliantly written, and sparkling with ideas (Iain McGilchrist)
Foster is funny and profound and his empathic mission shows our kinship with other species (Patrick Barkham Guardian)
Extraordinary... very funny... Foster is well read and writes beautifully. (The Sunday Times)
A wild and whimsical memoir. (The Times)
Takes nature writing to new levels... his work is a triumph. (Kate Green Country Life)
Very funny... hones senses long neglected... Mr Foster is the real thing, going truly feral and in the process discovering a whole new world. It is not a midlife crisis so much as a lifelong passion. (Economist 2016-02-27)
Funny, exuberant and courageous, nudging closer and closer to how it might feel to enter the non-human world. (Guardian, readers' BOTY 2016)
A lyrical exploration of what it is really like to 'be a beast', from swimming with otters to burrowing with badgers, and what this can tell us about the beast inside us all.See all Product description
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Ostensibly this book is the factual account of a man trying to learn what life is like for a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox and a swift by trying to live in the places they live, in the way they live, using his senses as they use theirs ... well with some variation especially when it comes to the swift. This is certainly an interesting and original project and carrying the hope with it of augmenting the work done by biologists and psychologists on these animals. He is not trying to do something scientific, he is trying to build empathy for these other species though this could of course lead to some fruitful directions for science. His write-up is leavened by importing a host of facts, theory and insight generated by others relevant to his project. The whole is carried off in an exuberant writing style. Let me give a couple of examples of things tried: he links the taste of earthworms to the local 'terroir' (his word) and has his children mark the landscape with their 'dung' (his word) to see if their choices of marking site tells him anything about the way otters make their own selections for dung-marking. You may not want to do these kind of explorations yourself but assuming you aren't revolted it sounds like an interesting read doesn't it? Ok, thats the good.
Now here are some bad things. Firstly, he manages little or no insight into the lives of the animals. In the book we see him doing things but as much thinking as he may have done and as much ink as he spills I do not think his explorations lead him to anything solid. If you swim in a river in Devon on a Winter's night then your thinking is going to be dominated by the sensation of cold. You are not going to find your inner otter. Further his sensibilities are not those of an (orthodox) scientist so the facts and theories he imports (without citation) about say physiology all come with a question mark. Has he got them from a 'reliable' source? Has he reported them reliably? Of course maybe your preference is for science augmented with a bit of shamanism in which case his open-minded approach to natural history may be a breath of fresh air.
The other thing about the book is the language which is crazy in all kinds of ways and in different ways in different parts of the books. One way you could treat the book is as an experimental novel, complete with a (possibly) unreliable narrator who succeeds not in informing us about the thoughts and emotions of animals but rather about his own mental condition. And our picture of this mental condition is revealed not so much by a plain telling of the experiences which he is open too - such as raiding other people's bins urban-fox-like for the remains of last night's takeaway - but rather more by the way he writes about his explorations. There are a lot of metaphors and the heaping up of all these metaphors has the effect that while I felt I had a good grip on the general direction of travel, I was often unsure whether the author and I had the same understanding of the particular. I find Salvador Dali's surrealist paintings interesting but I am not sure what he intended by them nor indeed if he intended anything in particular. This book has a touch of the surreal about it. Is that something you might enjoy or would you prefer a plain-spoken telling and just the facts?
Let me give you a quote to help illustrate a little of what you might be letting yourself in for:
"Laws of nature, according to the biologist Rupert Sheldrake (who collated many of the facts at the start of this chapter) are like habits. They tend to be true because that's the way the universe has become accustomed to behaving. Sodium and chlorine atoms naturally adopt the configuration that they do in the structure of salt crystals because they're used to it; it's been done trillions of times before; the template's established; the electrostatic grooves are nicely chamfered; things slide neatly together because practice makes perfect; habit is the line of least resistance; and habits have evolved because they work, and have been maintained because they keep working."
Hope that all helps you decide. This is definitely not a three star book. Three stars.
Very thought provoking. Some where between ethology, animal behaviour and shamanism.
Shot through with some brilliant concepts and pieces of writing.For example: 'The life of small animals is written in Morse: dots and dashes. They dash between the dots. They pause trembling between the dashes - so more of a semicolon than a dot.'
What is it like - well nothing I have ever read before and I absolutely recommend you read it. Oh and having just read this fear it is frighteningly gushy and want to add - I have never met Charles Foster, am not related to him etc etc.
Being a beast is inevitably a reflection on what it is to be a human (indeed one particular human being, Charles Foster). That's kind of the point: we can't escape ourselves. It doesn't set out to be a natural-history book, so shouldn't be criticised for not being one. It is also the only book I've read that honestly attempts to describe what happens to human physiology and mind during a hunt. And Foster does have both a factual and bizarrely specialised knowledge of the animals he studied. Read it with these expectations and you'll love the journey. I guarantee you will never see otters in the same way again. Or earthworms.
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Foster does attempt pretty much what it says on the tin, he wanted to really know and understand what consists life for badgers,...Read more
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