The Secret Life of Lobsters

Trevor Corson

Read June 2007

If I were a real book reviewer—that is to say, a paid hack in the service of a large publishing organization—I'd be pulling out all the cliches: “run, don't walk!”, “a tasty treat!&rdquo, “a perfect trifecta!”, and “better read than red: the tale of the carmine crustacean!”. This book is indeed all this—a great summer beach read, really—but also a great deal more. It is mature, thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate: truly excellent writing overall. It is also brutally flawed in an interesting way that does not hinder its readability.

Corson, who worked for two years as a lobsterman (with some of the book's protagonists), has written about the lobster from three perspectives: the lobstermen who farm them, the scientists who track them, and the lobsters themselves, whose lives (especially—as the press at large has gleefully noticed, failing to catch the bigger story behind the book—sex lives) weave in and out of this narrative. He is sharp enough a writer to know how to interleave these stories; he is also skilled enough a writer to know the rules and bend them effectively. The result is an inviting, satisfying but also provocative account of the lobster.

The key undercurrent to this book is the story of how the government's marine scientists have entirely misunderstood lobster counts. Accused of overfishing, the lobstermen have engaged in a lengthy, often nasty, exchange with the government over regulation, yet what the book reveals is how little each side really knows, and how often what one side “knows” fails to be true. The feds are, of course, trapped in a familiar paradoxical position of both promoting an industry and protecting its long-term viability: a situation familiar, with small differences, to anyone who tracks the conflicts that govern other federal regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). (Corson notices this paradox (p. 254), but only just.) But the real problem here is not their conflicting mandate but their lack of direct observation and experiment. The scientists most featured in this book are a group of renegades who buck the trends of the government's views, befriending the lobstermen and engaging in hands-on research.

Corson's descriptions of the scientists at work is one of the best popular accounts I've read in a long while about the actual practice of science. Indeed, his very sense of science is excellent: not as a progressive activity or a sequence of eureka moments as much as an account of hard work, sacrifice, confusion, and a generous dollop of luck. As he slowly builds up to a climactic account (p. 115-6) of what actually seems to limit the populations of lobsters, we see science unfolding as a mystery in the very best sense.

The details are generally fine, too. Corson leavens excellent prose with real voices, and the result has an agreeable blend of the fine-tuned and the earthy. While focusing on the bigger scientific picture he dwells sufficiently on the trivia, for instance discussing (p. 221) an amazing video of lobster behavior in a lobster trap that I'd heard about independently from John Hughes. (One detail he did miss that John related: apparently the weight of fished lobsters almost precisely equals that of bait used, making the lobstering region off the coast of Maine essentially one large underwater farmland.) The book has two beautiful maps that enhance the attractiveness of the package. When Corson discusses the dedication of scientists such as Diane Cowan—people who are clearly in it for the pure love of learning—and her topsy-turvy life, his writing manages to fortify the human dimension without making the account maudlin: the result would be far worse in the hands of a less capable writer.

There are some things Corson could have done better. Given that lobsters range from North Carolina to Labrador, what makes the Maine variety special? We never find out. What are the population counts that the parties are disputing? We find out only on p. 115. What sorts of incomes do these beleagured lobstermen and their assistants make? No idea. The book could desperately use some images of, for instance, lobster anatomy; to my delight but also great annoyance, I discovered only half-way through reading that these were present, but in an appendix! (Be sure to get the Harper Perennial edition with the “P.S.” addendum; the images are all in p. 11-13 of that section.) Would it have killed them to add a little note near the beginning pointing to the appendix? Or did they assume their only readers would be lounging on a beach and couldn't care less where a lobster's swimmerets are?

Oh yes, the brutal flaw. In an Author's Note at the end Corson makes a mighty fuss about his desire to remain honest to science, and indeed is generous to credit the many other people who do work similar to those people he profiled in the book. (Curiously, though, he does not believe—even at that point, well beyond the reach of the average beach reader—in providing actual citations for anything.) Why, then, did he not carry out the obvious obligation of any journalist or scientist (much less someone trying to be both): interviewing the government's scientists to understand why they got their details of lobster populations so wrong? Surely such an interview would have presented an even more subtle story, and they would not have come across as such addle-headed theoreticians incapable of so much as stepping on a lobster-boat. Corson's own bias is clear (and he does not try to hide it); having worked on the boats, and known the lobstermen, he is not sympathetic to the government. But that still does not excuse his behavior and, worse, it leaves the entire book with an unsatisfying tint.

But, never mind. It's a fine boook, he's an excellent author, and his wide-ranging skills are surely going to be applied to enlivening some other unexpected topic in the future. Provided it's not one he has a personal stake in, his methods and skills should yield a fine result.