Our Animals, Ourselves: Jenny Diski’s ‘What I Don’t Know About Animals’

Animal enthusiasts have no shortage of reading options these days. Inside of a Dog, You Had Me At Woof, and Unlikely Friendships have all topped bestseller lists recently, bringing pet owners closer to their furry family members. Vegetarians and animal-rights advocates were treated to Jonathan Safran Foer’s shining prose and expert storytelling in 2009’s Eating Animals. From the looks of the cover, Jenny Diski offers similar fare in her nonfiction book, What I Don’t Know About Animals.

But then, we all know what they say about judging books by their covers. As the title suggests, there’s a lot we don’t (and truly can’t) know about animals; What I Don’t Know About Animals exists in that space. This book doesn’t claim to take us inside animals. It explores, via travel book format, how we think about them — how we view them, breed them, farm, kill, and eat them, and how we still fail to really know how they experience this world.

It’s a worthy exploration. Diski draws on a wide range of animal influence in our culture, considering philosophers’ views, scientific use, the farming industry, and her own personal experiences with animals to paint a multi-dimensional portrait of how we look at animals.

The book begins with the author’s own childhood encounters. Diski describes some fairly somber memories (for example, taking home an injured bird with the intention of healing it, only to witness its death) and considers the ways in which animals are represented in cartoons, Disney films, and stuffed toys to be neotenized — childlike, adorable, and therefore lovable to us (and, of course, less deadly to us than beasts in the wild).

“Neotony” is one of a few scientific terms highlighted in the book; “anthropomorphism” is another stand-out. A repeating idea in What I Don’t Know About Animals is that whenever we experience or exploit animals, we reveal more about ourselves than about the animals in question. Despite our attempts to classify, our language only separates us from them further — exacerbating the otherness of animals — as we try to define what they mean to us. Diski writes, “What animals are to themselves is a question mostly left to philosophers to fail to come to a conclusion about.” The author then expertly weaves together some animal-related arguments from Derrida, Darwin, Heidegger, and Levinas.

What I Don’t Know About Animals also takes readers into zoos, scientific laboratories, and even a mental hospital, where we see how the living things that don’t resemble us — such as parasites and spiders — can contribute to our own neuroses. Cat ladies and animal hoarders are also discussed in the animals-and-madness chapter, “Under Our Skin”. Some of the author’s most generous confessions appear here.

Readers also get a peek into traditional farming and factory farming, as Diski contemplates the (im)morality of both, along with that of vegetarianism, veganism, and eating meat while still appreciating animal companionship. Her subsequent summary of Temple Grandin’s work with animals in the farming industry is especially interesting and raises some important questions: Can we know what’s best for animals when we use them for our own benefit? How can we treat animals humanely when we use them for food, clothing, and financial benefit?

Ultimately, Diski herself doesn’t know enough about animals to take a radical position on them — on whether to eat them or not, or whether scientists should use them for research purposes. Her book does raise many fascinating questions, though.

With that said, perhaps not all readers will appreciate the gray-scale subtlety of this fine book. There’s a depression that looms over it — not necessarily a sadness, but an absence — the lack of our ability to really know animals or share language with them, and the lack of a concrete conclusion to the book.

And I guess there’s some sadness, too, along with the absence. Whereas Foer offers the youthful zest of a new husband and dad in Eating Animals, Diski laces her book with descriptions of a quiet, lonely life with her cat, Bunty, whom she can never really know, but whom she prefers over human company because at least she can return the cat’s blank stare with affection. As the author notes, “Blankness can mean everything and nothing, after all.”

Diski’s dry humor (which inspired me to write “ha!” in my margins more than a few times) and her thorough research on a seldom-explored topic will certainly capture readers’ attention.

RATING 7 / 10