599: Rats by Robert Sullivan

by Gerard

599.352: Sullivan, Robert. Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. 227 pp. ISBN 1-58234-385-3.

Dewey Construction:

  • 500: Science
  • 590: Zoology
  • 599: Mammals
  • 599.3: Miscellaneous placental mammals
  • 599.35: Rodents
  • 599.352: Common rats

Robert Sullivan has decided to write a natural history of the unlikeliest of creatures. They are everywhere, but no one seems all that interested in them. They have followed humanity to every continent they’ve explored, shaped the course of human history, and provided an avenue for scientific research. In spite of all this, they are considered the foulest, most wretched members of the animal kingdom. Today we talk about the common rat.

Rattus norvegicus worked its way from the plains of Asia into Europe (much like Genghis Khan) by the mid-16th century, and from there spread through shipping lanes to distant parts of the world. It reached North American shores by the mid-1750s. In Robert Sullivan’s Rats, the author sets up in a small alleyway just off Wall Street and observes their behavior while also branching out to look at how we as a society deal with rats. He watches their eating habits, their growing families, and their natural tendencies, even going so far as to create a list of foods that rats enjoy the most and enjoy the least.

He talks to exterminators, garbage workers, and scientists to get a sense of how rats interact with both our past and our present. While there are of course connections to the spread of the Black Death, the rat has become a vector for many other ailments, all of which require the precise monitoring of rat populations. Rats also help to map out human conditions, as they tend to congregate in areas of poverty and poor hygiene.

This book may give you the creepy-crawlies, or it just might help you appreciate another ecosystem in your own backyard. I for one enjoyed it. When you really take the time to observe nature, it is always fascinating and always worth the look. This book is chock full of interesting asides, characters, and historical nuggets.