Richard Schweid's growing number of fans will be delighted by his new book Consider the Eel. Those acquainted with his work know that he tends to lead readers on a fascinating tour of many things besides the subject at hand. What Schweid offers is a unified picture of human beings and the natural world on which we still (and always will) depend. Schweid accomplished this impressive synthesis in previous books like Catfish and the Delta: Confederate Farm Fishing in the Mississippi Delta and The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore. But Consider the Eel may be his best work yet. With wit and enthusiasm, Schweid tells the story of a fascinating creature that begins its life in the Sargasso Sea before winding up on the American or European coast. Eventually, Schweid tells us, the eels return to the Sargasso. Their lives are clearly ruled by urges we do not yet understand, and the author beautifully captures the mystery of their lives. Although cultures from Pamlico Sound to Valencia depend upon them for food, eels resist domestication. So do most of the people involved with them, as Schweid reveals in his vividly (and amusingly) described trips through eel territory on both sides of the Atlantic. He also documents the odd cultural history of the eel, from the observations of 13th century naturalist Albertus Magnus to contemporary superstitions along both coasts. And he even throws in some recipes along the way.
Schweid is a curious naturalist, a compassionate sociologist and a fine writer. As a world traveler living in Spain and as senior editor of the magazine Barcelona Metropolitan, he has a unique perspective on American life. His books are a wonderful blend of travel narrative, natural history, sociology and pure writing. Each literate, adventurous outing seems more quirky and personal and imaginative than the last. And the craftsmanship just gets better and better precise observation, dry wit, impassioned reporting without a hint of polemic.
Richard Schweid deserves the kind of audience that follows Peter Matthiessen or John McPhee. With Consider the Eel he is one step closer to finding it.
Michael Sims' new book Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Body will be published by Viking in 2003.