Reading has once again been interrupted by the draining—and yet exhilarating—end of the school year crunch where all of life seems to be put on hold until my seniors don their gowns and throw their caps in the air. And then I can breathe, go to battle with the weeds in my prairie garden, and curl up with a book. So perhaps it’s fitting that I spent my first few free days swinging in the chair mock under the poplar tree with Jane Goodall’s book. It wasn’t exactly the same thing as sitting under a tree in the Gombe forest watching beloved chimpanzees, but it was a lot closer than hunching over research papers at my kitchen table. I’m not sure if I liked the book because it symbolized the start of summer or if I liked the book because Goodall gave me a glimpse into her world in the wild. The book is subtitled “A Spiritual Journey,” and that seems to be the main premise of it: how her spiritual and religious beliefs have guided her life. But I found the parts about the chimps far more fascinating than her heavy-handed preaching about spirituality. In one scene, she is lying in the forest observing and describing her surroundings—the abdomen of a bee, the eyes of a squirrel, the sunlight over the trees—trying to put her new awareness into words but realizing that words often take so much away from an experience because as soon as we describe or classify something, “part of the wonder is gone” and “once we have labelled the things around us, we do not bother to look at them so carefully” anymore. This made me think of not only nature, but of people, and how quickly we label and classify—and then lose the wonder and the individuality of that person. Insights like those made me think. Goodall is best when she writes about the chimps, the forest, the natural environment.
Where she gets tiresome is when she comments on our materialistic, greedy, selfish, apathetic, irresponsible world. And those are only a few of her many strings of adjectives that repeat throughout the second half of the book. She tries to balance them with the positives she sees (thus the title Reason for Hope), but it’s not very convincing. Frankly, I agree with all of her adjectives, but her writing leaves much to be desired. It gets tiresome. And on the topic of spirituality, she simply skims the surface of some major issues. Like how she fuses her strong belief in evolution with her belief in Biblical text—surely many people believe in the science of evolution as well as the story of Genesis, but she really does not address some of the central questions in the religion/science inquiry. I was looking for some in-depth discussion, but she shies away from some of the more difficult issues. For a book about her spiritual journey, I was hoping for more than a ‘when-my-life-got-hard-I doubted-God’ sort of journey. That felt a bit high-schoolish to me. I was looking for more.
Goodall’s best writing comes when she takes us into the forest where we can watch David Greybeard poke a reed into a termite colony or listen to Fifi and Fanni feeding on figs while Freud and Frodo play nearby. She should definitely stick to writing about the chimps. (nonfiction)