Robert Sullivan is a naturalist renowned for two previous books, The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt, both of which received many accolades. One day he realized that to ignore rats (the most common mammal in the world) in his beloved New York City would be to ignore one of America's great immigrant success stories. Therefore, he began to study the rats about him. At night he hung out in an alley near garbage cans, watching rats through night-vision goggles; by day he researched the history of rats in New York and elsewhere. The resulting book, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, is clever, literate, insightful, funny and sometimes even lyrical.
"To begin with," the author explains, "Edens Alley is L-shaped, a cobblestone strip that is surrounded by brick walls a walled-in lane that was like my Walden, though I'm not so nuts as to want to actually sleep there or anything." This sentence tells you a lot about Sullivan's style: it's colloquial, levelheaded and funny. His research habitat is halfway between Wall Street and New York Harbor, an overlooked "nowhere in the center of everything." Sullivan shares Thoreau's conviction that wherever you may be is the place to begin a deeper relationship with the universe.
The Norway rat, with the cartoonish scientific name of Rattus norvegicus, is one of the most adaptable creatures on our verminous planet. "Rats live in the world precisely where man lives," Sullivan remarks. "I think of rats as our mirror species." He observes but does not emphasize that, for example, rats are argumentative overeaters who seem to obsess on sex.
You would not expect to get to know a number of characters in a book of this sort. However, it teems with lively figures going about their lives. Not least among them, of course, is the author himself, who comes across as modest, ironic, sometimes courageous and endlessly curious about the great city in which he lives. But you will also meet many other New Yorkers, including an exterminator who has become something of a celebrity, intrepid health department medicos and numerous historical figures from New York's past. Readers may share Sullivan's surprise when suddenly, for the first time, he recognizes a particular rat and realizes that he has been at this curious nocturnal hobby for a very long time. Michael Sims' most recent book is Adam's Navel, chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Library Journal Best Science Book of 2003.