Disclaimer: Brian Switek and I are good friends (I have impersonated a squid for him on occasion). In fact we are such good friends that his latest book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, is dedicated to me (I am SO SO flattered and honored. I cried when I saw it, cause BRONTY IS THE BEST). So I don’t feel that I can really give a REVIEW of the book, as I’m by default a little biased here (spoiler: you should read it). But I loved the book, and I want to talk about why I liked it (even aside from the dedication!). So this isn’t a review, per se. It’s my thoughts on the book. Take that as you will. 🙂
As Brian noted in his dedication to his new book “My Beloved Brontosaurs: on the road with old bones, new science, and our favorite dinosaurs” (Due out April 16th!), I really loved old Brontosaurus. I still do. I know it doesn’t exist, Brontosaurus is actually Apatosaurus, but Brontosaurus remains as a fondness in my memory from my childhood.
But then again, so do ALL the dinosaurs I remember. I love them, in all their cold-blooded slow reptile-ness. I love the idea of the prehistoric world being full of warm swamps with the reverberating stomping of slow giants. I liked the Jurassic Park version, fast, wily, but still ultimately strange and reptilian.
And I really didn’t want to believe otherwise. I saw all the changes going on to dinosaurs. Warm blooded. Then feathered (I begin to suspect that dinosaurs tasted like chicken), then brightly colored and social and good moms. The whole deal. And I just didn’t really identify with it. Those weren’t MY dinosaurs. Those were some other dinosaurs. I couldn’t really reconcile the two in my mind, and I didn’t really WANT to.
So I have to say that I picked up Brian’s book excited about new dino science, but pretty unwilling to be convinced. New science about dinosaurs could not possibly make dinosaurs as cool as the old ones I remembered.
…but I was wrong.
Brian’s book (I guess I should say “Switek’s book”, but these are my thoughts, not a proper review, and I’ll dang call him Brian if I want to) reminds us all of those dinosaur days. That dinosaur phase many of us went through, our wide-eyed wonder. He taps in to that old wonder, the amazement at these giants that once walked the planet, and he makes it BETTER.
These aren’t your childhood dinosaurs, but their new complexity and the many things we still don’t know about them make them an enticing subject. We often think of dinosaurs as the kind of thing you grow out of. Yeah, I was into that when I was five, but now I’m in to new, adult things like accounting and optogenetics. But by seeing these new aspects of dinosaurs, from how they may have communicated to how the heck they could have mated (big spiky tails get in the WAY), you get that sense of wonder all over again. Dinosaurs are for children and adults alike.
Yes, we used to think dinosaurs were slow and cold…but isn’t it that much more AMAZING to think of them as fast, bright, and potentially fluffy? We used to think that hadrosaurs used the huge crests on their heads to maybe breathe underwater, but isn’t it even cooler to imagine them used for sound, a huge, deep bass chorus honking across prehistoric plains? And while reptilian, lizard-like dinosaurs are nice and threatening on the movie screen, doesn’t it make them that much more exciting to imagine them moving fast, cocking their head at you, birdlike, at the top of a set of hollow and perforated bones as light as air?
To show us these new dinosaurs made from old bones, Brian takes us on a tour of some of his favorite dinosaur haunts, from the hills of Montana (where the paleontologist runs up against one of his more implacable nemeses…the cow), to the beautiful arid deserts of Arches National Park. The more I read, the more desperate I was to get out there myself, to see the dinosaur tracks stomped forever in stone, to see bones that crumble right out of the hills. I know that digging bones can be hot, sweaty, and tedious work, but when it culminates in even something as small as a dinosaur tooth, I feel like my life at the bench pales in comparison.
Brian covers many aspects of dinosaur life, from how they may have stood and moved (T. Rex was a clapper, not a slapper!), to how they may have mated. He talks about paleontology with humor (his wife’s comment about how dinosaur mating would have been easier if the vagina was on the side “like a gas tank”, is my absolute favorite) and with an amused eye at some of the foibles of the scientists involved (the race to find the biggest dino just got absurd), but you can also feel his deep love of his subject, and the places where his precious dinosaurs are found. From what we used to think, to what we think now, dinosaurs get more complex, and more fascinating, as you see them through the eyes of someone truly obsessed.
And in the end: I was convinced. As much as I used to want to see a Brontosaurus, sloshing slow, majestic, and somewhat bovinely through the mud, I think I want even more to see a light, speedy, group of Allosauruses (Allosaurae?), racing like birds over the hills. They aren’t the dinosaurs we remember, but thanks to writers like Brian, they are more fascinating than ever.