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The Book of Eels by Patrik Svensson (2019)

Finished: 7/30/21


Grade: B+


This book goes back and forth between Svensson’s personal experiences fishing for eel with his father in Sweden, and historical tales of the scientists who tried to unravel the mystery of the European Eel’s breeding habits.


The personal bits were great. A beautiful exploration of Svensson’s relationship with his father, through the lens of the eel; a slippery and mysterious creature that Svensson elevates to the realm of the mythic.

The historical parts were less exciting. Mainly, I think, because, other than the question “Where do eels breed?” not a lot of scientific attention has been paid to the European eel. Svensson, then, is forced to stretch the narrative to fill in the gaps.


A particularly egregious example is the chapter that focuses on Sigmund Freud. Apparently, before he was a famous psychologist, Freud spent some time studying eels. In the end Freud doesn’t actually learn anything about eels, and doesn’t mention them again in any of his correspondence or published works, but still Svensson concludes that “Maybe” his time studying them “could have” influenced his later theories about sex. Theories which have all been debunked by now anyway, so…

It feels like Svensson is grasping for historical straws, which is strange because there must be more pertinent eel material out there, right? Doesn’t the Samoan creation myth involve eels? What about Japan? They’ve GOTTA have some good eel stories there. And what about Moray eels? Electric eels? The big eel in Mario 64!? It feels like there were some missed opportunities there,


BUT

I do know more about eels than I did before, and I was truly moved by the more intimate personal aspects of the book. So all in all, I would say a book worth reading.


Big ups to Midway Airport for selling me this bad boy! And big ups to Renata De Oliveira for an amazing cover design!

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