Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist
By Leslie Anthony
Greystone Books, 290 pp., $29.95
Reviewed by Andrew Mitchell
Before Leslie Anthony embarked on his second career as a ski bum (albeit a highly literate one who has edited the top skiing magazines, while freelancing as a travel and adventure writer) - he was a snake guy. That is to say he was a herpetologist, a rare breed of zoologist who specializes in snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders and turtles; species that turned out to be on wholly different branches of the evolutionary tree but that can often be found together in the same swamps, deserts, jungles and grasslands.
Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist is an account of Anthony's evolution as a scientist, from his childhood forays into ponds and swamps in search of specimens to bring home to his later expeditions around the world in search of rare and poisonous breeds that are often poorly researched and even less understood.
It's a gripping read, part biography, part adventure story, part homage to a subject that clearly fascinates him. It's packed with interesting facts, but Anthony's easy style and deft touch weaving the details into the larger narrative ensures that Snakebit never reads like a textbook.
In that sense Anthony has achieved something that only a handful of authors can claim, producing a non-fiction, science-themed book that can entertains as much as it informs. Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel fall in this all-too narrow genre of books. Anthony's style is in a lot of ways warmer and more humorous than Bryson's or Diamond's, while his chief subject - snakes, with some salamanders and turtles thrown in for good measure - keep the narrative focused and tight.
Anthony isn't trying to explain life, the universe and everything (apologies to Douglas Adams) but in a way he has a much harder job justifying his admiration for these sometimes dangerous and unpredictable prehistoric creatures that happen to scare or revolt so many of us. In doing so he opens a window onto a world where the people are as unique and esoteric as the subjects they study, the opposite of what you might expect from scientists wearing labcoats. That's because a herpetologist is a part-time adventurer, someone who ventures into the wilderness in search of lightning-quick and often venomous specimens that they have to try to capture. Anthony makes herpetology cool, kind of like Indiana Jones made archaeology cool.