2008 Non Fiction Other Prizes

Leviathan – Philip Hoare

  Winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

Five words from the blurb: whales, humans, Melville, history, gigantic

I didn’t mean to read Leviathan this month, but I picked up a copy and couldn’t put it down. Leviathan contains everything that you’d ever want to know about whales; including their natural history, their interactions with humans and their role in literature.  

The book was packed with the type of facts that I love –  almost every other page contained something that I wanted to share with whoever happened to be closest to me. My family began mocking my new obsession with whales, but how can you not want to share a fact like this?!

A sperm whale can create a two-hundred-decibel boom able to travel one hundred miles along the ‘sofar’ channel, a layer of deep water that readily conducts noise. It seems strange that such a physically enormous creature should rely on something so intangible; but bull sperm whales, by virtue of their larger heads, generate sounds so powerful that they may stun or even kill their prey. These directional acoustic bursts, focused through their foreheads and likened to gunshots, are the equivalent, as one writer notes, of the whale killing its quarry by shouting very loudly at it.

I also discovered:

  • A sperm whale can eat 700 squid in one day.
  • Sperm whales were not filmed underwater until 1984.
  • A killer whale used to live in Windsor Safari Park.
  • A man is said to have been recovered alive from the stomach of a sperm whale several hours after being eaten by it.

I now have the ability to talk about whales for several hours!

One slight problem I had with the book was that I hadn’t read Moby-Dick. I’m sure that some of the sections would have been more meaningful had this been the case, but it has at least persuaded me to read it soon.

The only other tiny issue I had was that most of the photographs were very small and grainy. I can understand why this would be the case for the older examples, but even some of the more modern ones were unclear.  This book would have been improved greatly with the addition of a few larger, clearer photographs.

On a more positive note, I thought the writing was fantastic. It effortlessly guided the reader from one topic to the next; managing to move from lighter humor to the darker aspects of whaling without any drop in pace.

I loved this book and will be forcing it into the hands of several people over the coming months. I highly recommend that you get hold of a copy.

17 replies on “Leviathan – Philip Hoare”

I bought this book after I interviewed Susan Fletcher (author of Corrag) and she said that she wished she had written it and that her head was full of whales for weeks afterwards. I keep meaning to read it but alas haven’t got round to it yet.

The Book Whisperer, Whales are swimming around in my head too! I think they will be there for a long time and can see why Susan Fletcher (or anyone) wishes that they’d written this book – it is flawlessly written and so inspiring. I hope that you find the time to read it soon.

I think I’d really like this book! I remember one of my favorite things about Moby Dick was the chapters where he’d just delve into natural history on whales or info about whaling; it was so fascinating.

Jeane, I didn’t realise that Moby Dick also went into sections of nonfiction, but if you like that kind of information then you’ll love Leviathan – I learnt so much. I hope that you enjoy it.

I’m fond of Philip Hoare — he wrote a book about a libel trial relating to Oscar Wilde’s play Salome that was absolutely superb — but haven’t read this yet. I can assure you, however, that Moby Dick won’t be worth the time you’ll spend reading it, even if it would make a few chapters of Leviathan more enriching. :p

Jenny, LOL! I have heard that Moby Dick isn’t very easy to read, but I at least want to try it – I don’t think I’ll ever be more motivated than I am now.

It is great to hear that his other books are worth reading. His writing is so good that I think he could make any subject interesting. I’m going to be keeping an eye out for all his books now.

I´m impressed yet again Jackie, at how you, (a total stranger) are able to entice me into reading a non-fiction book about whales of all things!!!. I´m ashamed to say I know very little about these fascinating creatures (I suppose as little as the next person). Your utter excitement about this book is clearly transmitted in this post and you wanting to “force it into the hands of several people” has made me add YET ANOTHER book to my wish list…… but no buying till April!!

Ifi, LOL! I hope April comes around quickly for you 🙂

The wonderful thing about the internet is that it introduces you to many things that you’d never normally pick up. I have been persuaded to try some very random things too. The great news is that they are normally wonderful. I hope you find Leviathan as interesting as I did.

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