Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime by Ellen Prager

Read: 24 August, 2016

Despite its racy, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime is actually a fairly tame overview of marine life. Each chapter features a group of species sharing some common trait, giving a few facts for each before the chapter closes with a “why they matter” section (which usually covers edibility and medicinal uses).

As intended, it was the title of the book that really caught my attention. Unfortunately, I only got a few paragraphs in before I knew that I was in trouble. While the title promises humour, the narrative style is really lacking. The book is written in bullet list style, except without the benefit of bullets. Because I was never given any time to process each fact before being ushered along to the next one, I found it extremely difficult to absorb anything that I was reading. It made reading about the dietary habits of the hagfish feel like work, and failed to convey a solid impression of Prager’s subjects.

The “why they matter” sections were very meh. The lists of ‘things you can make with a hagfish’s skin’ quickly grew tiresome and uninteresting. The stated goal of the book was to make me care, but lists of how a particular fish’s various parts are used in Chinese medicine to cure impotence does not, actually, make me care. Rather than throwing reasons at me, Prager’s time would have been better spent using her narrative descriptions to evoke my feelings. It’s a classic issue of “show don’t tell.”

The book’s strength is that it is full of facts. If I had a burning desire to know about seahorses but didn’t know where to start (and, for some reason, had access to Prager’s book but not to Wikipedia), the encyclopedic nature of the book would be perfect. Unfortunately, I don’t see that being a very common scenario.

I did really like Prager’s “what you can do” section at the very end of the book. In it, she lists a number of ideas, organized by participation level. There are ideas for people who want to run for congress, and then there are ideas for people who just want to know what to buy when they go to the supermarket. If she expanded that section a little, maybe added a few narrative touches, it would have worked very well as an article.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Prager, because she clearly knows her stuff and the book is nothing if not well-researched. Besides that, it’s obvious that she’s passionate about the subject, and I can never fault passion. It’s just that you can’t make people share that passion by trying to trigger their selfish consumptive desires – and certainly not in the same book where you are trying to convince people to participate in preserving and protecting our oceans! Rather than trying to convince her readers to care about our oceans through rational arguments, I wish that Prager had just unleashed the passion she so clearly has, and let me feel it for a little while.

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