Of all the books published in 2022, I gave only one to my optometrist. Dr. Cheng shares his storefront reception area with a sweet little dog, and I’ve often wondered what the animal sees when it looks at me.
I thought of them both when I learned the truth, which you will have to look up for yourself in Ed Yong’s An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (Random House). It’s a compendium of stories from the history of research into the senses of animals, in that he takes us in each section to the time and place that somebody discovered something new and thrilling about the way that insects rumble, or fish’s eyes disappear. It’s an interesting way to structure such a big slab of a book, making for the kind of thing you can dip in and out of or mainline on the weekend.
Yong, a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within us and a Grander View of Life, divides the book roughly by sense, including the familiar five but also encompassing seismic and electrical senses, among others. Each subsection within these opens on a scene, anchored with some declarative detail about how “Daniel Speiser,” a researcher at the University of South Carolina, for example, “never thought he would spend his career trying to empathize with scallops” or similar.
So, the data is always contextualized within the narrative of Yong’s own experiences meeting with scientists and their subjects. He describes holding a cold, hibernating rodent in his hand; how it feels to be explored by a walrus’s oral disc. This kind of specificity in time and place saves him from generalizing. Similarities between anecdotes start to emerge, then general principles. The footnotes are also excellent: Yong buries little narrative gems, like a zoologist’s poem or some factoid about nasal cavities, under the main body of the text.
Yong isn’t just reconciling science writing and storytelling in this book. He’s making a new form, one with deep roots in American magazine writing and growing towards a more interdisciplinary future. That’s the real reason An Immense World is the perfect book for the waiting room of an independent optometrist’s practice: I go there to talk to somebody who is my neighbor and who thinks the human eyeball is the coolest thing in the whole world. Like those conversations, which a textbook could never equip me with, this book has helped me to witness forms of beauty I had no idea existed.