“I have long been an admirer of the octopus,” the author confesses on page 47. “The cephalopods are very old, and they have slipped, protean, through many shapes.” As someone with a certain fondness for octopi myself, this sentence endeared Loren Eiseley to me immensely, and I felt like we would have a good relationship for the remainder of The Immense Journey.
My father happened to be with me when I picked this book up from the post office, and he said “The Immense Journey, what a curious choice. It’s a famous book; I wonder why anyone would assume you haven’t read it.” Well, I hadn’t read it, actually, and I can see why it was famous at one point; the language and style are quite appealing, introspective, witty, and fiercely intelligent all at the same time. I can also see how modern readers might struggle with it, because it’s a meandering, slow kind of book with a point that emerges slowly and delicately and never fully coalesces. To me, this is what makes a book great; to others, it would probably be a source of immense frustration.
This book is sort of about evolution and anthropology, but it’s also about nature, and the ways in which people are interconnected with their environments. I love the chapter where Eisely talks about confronting an ancient skull in the sandstone and feeling like a fossil, the description of how flowers changed the world, and the discussion of alien life forms.
This is a book that I think I will be definitely re-reading later in the year, because it’s incredibly rich and quite dense. It’s a fascinating look into the journey of human evolution; when Eisely wrote it, Lucy hadn’t even been discovered yet, and he did a remarkable job of extrapolating on the basis of minimal fossil evidence, although the section on “the Negro race” did make me a bit uncomfortable, to be honest, with my delicate Northern California sensibilities writhing.
I have a friend who would probably dismiss this book as “pop science,” and it is indeed one of the earliest science books which tried to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities. But to dismiss it as mere pop would be a profound mistake, because it does far more than open a small window into the world of science. It delves into the mind of the reader and forces you to think about humans, our history, and our environment. There’s even a whiff of mystery and mythology, which happens to be how I like my science.
Many thanks to the anonymous sender of The Immense Journey.
The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley. Published 1946, 210 pages. Science/Memoir.