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What I’m Reading (No. 108): primal + a Black History Month reading list
This week I finished an older classic novel as well as a new-ish popular science book. At first blush, they’re pretty disparate, but when I looked a little closer, I realized they were both quite primal in nature.
Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is about a domesticated house dog that finds its primal longings and instincts coming alive after being kidnapped to the harsh Yukon.
Aroused, while not about sex per se, is about how our hormones control our most primal urges and identities — from our sexuality and sex drive, to our appetite and physical growth, to a host of strange maladies and snake oil scams.
Let’s get to it.
One quick side note: Welcome to the couple hundred new subscribers who are reading for the first time this week! I don’t actually know where you came from, but I’d love to hear. Shoot me an email back and let me know.
Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything by Randi Hutter Epstein (2018, 242 pages)
Hormones have gotten plenty of attention in the last decade — from treating depression, to giving men of all ages a (mostly bogus) boost in the form of synthetic testosterone, to helping people better understand their sexuality, gender identity, moods, appetites, and more.
What Epstein does in Aroused is walk us through the history of hormone science as well as the new ideas that are driving what we know (and don’t know) about those mystery drugs that live inside our body.
For someone who’s not very science-y, it was very accessible and always illuminating.
The history parts were fascinating; there have been some seriously weird experiments done in the name of hormones. For instance, one famous study showed that you can remove the testicles from a rooster, see its energy and sex drive plummet, then reinsert them anywhere in the body, and it’s like nothing ever changed. I told you — weird.
Epstein also gets into all the bodily systems and functions that are controlled by hormones — much of which I wasn’t really aware of. And of course us humans are actively trying to control those systems and functions.
In the modern day, it would perhaps seem that we’ve moved beyond the pseudo-science pitched by hucksters the world over, but we really haven’t. Testosterone-boosting products have exploded onto the market, as well as a number of other non-regulated supplements that pitch making you younger, thinner, taller, bustier, etc. And frankly, the vast majority of them are worthless.
This was a really interesting book that I was unexpectedly pulled into. For being in the science genre, it’s surprisingly easy reading, and I learned something new on pretty much every page.
A Black History Month Reading List
With February being Black History Month, I highly encourage you to read at least one book this month about black history and/or by a black author. This list is obviously not comprehensive; below are just a few I’ve read or plan to read this month:
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Our book club read this month. It’s all about Noah’s childhood experience in South Africa having a black mom and a mostly absent white father. Very funny and very moving.
Kindred by Octavia Butler. I remember being blown away by this time-traveling book when I read it in high school. I’m reading it again now and you’ll hear more next week! I also want to checker out the new graphic adaptation of her The Parable of the Sower.
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A really powerful collection of essays covering everything from Obama, to reparations, to raising black kids in America. Coates’ Between the World and Me is also supposed to be great, though it remains unread on my shelf as of yet. (Maybe this month…)
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Short, powerful tale of Douglass’ escape from slavery and subsequent self-education as he spent his life fighting for emancipation and black rights.
Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball. This National Book Award winner from the ‘90s is about the search that Ball (a white journalist) embarks on to find and talk with the descendants of the slaves his family owned from 1698-1865. Looking forward to reading it this month.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Universally applauded and for good reason. While I didn’t finish the book (just lost steam), what I did read was very good. I’ll finish someday. Probably. To be fair, it is more textbook-like than I expected.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I loved this book, despite its sometimes brutal story. Whitehead’s writing is just magnificent; there’s a reason it won all the awards. Adds a fantasy-like element to the story of the Underground Railroad while maintaining a strong sense of the real-life experiences of its “passengers.”
Pretty much anything about the Civil War. The war over slavery is near criminally under-understood by most Americans. A couple starting points might be Confederates in the Attic or Hymns of the Republic.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903, 75 pages)
“instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest.”
While it might seem gimmicky or amateurish to make a dog the narrator of your novel, Jack London artfully does just that in The Call of the Wild. It’s a short work (my edition was just 75 pages), but damn near every page is poetry in story form.
Buck is a husky mix who has grown up in luxury in California. But, he’s quickly kidnapped and brought to the wilds of Alaska and Canada where he’s sold into a servile existence of hauling sleds with other dogs.
It’s a rough start for Buck, but he quickly adapts and finds that his long-dormant primal nature is coming alive again. Though he changes hands a few times, Buck ultimately comes to find that the primal being is the one who lives life the fullest and experiences the greatest expression of his strength and skills. The domesticated, lazy creature he was before cannot exist in this new world:
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he.
While our modern world might seem soft, even ~120 years ago Jack London clearly felt that most people were living domesticated lives. So he himself set out to the Yukon, along with a number of other wild adventures, and embraced his primal self — London was a person who was most satisfied in working hard and in fulfilling his most basic needs as self-reliantly as he could (London famously ate a ton of raw meat).
Rather than write from a first-person point of view, though, London chose to tell that tale and convey that lesson through the character of Buck. And it’s a powerful, unforgettable framing.
For both its lyrical, stirring, inspiring prose, and its advocacy of doing hard things and living strenuously, I can’t recommend The Call of the Wild highly enough. You’ll read it in a matter of days and its themes are sure to stick with you. I can’t wait to read more London this year.
That’s all for me this week. As always, I’d love to hear what you’re reading. Thank you for the time and inbox space — it’s much appreciated.