How does one go about writing an encyclopedia of insects? In terms of species, the sheer numbers of those thus far described by entomologists alone would fill several volumes if nothing more than their names were recorded. Then there is the question of for whom it should be written. For entomologists – most of whom specialize and thus any one of which might only be expected to read a small portion of it; or for the interested amateur, who despite even a profound enthusiasm, may quickly tire or become bewildered amid explanations of each taxonomic Order and Family? For Hugh Raffles, author of the recently published Insectopedia, the answer was to approach the problem from a dramatically unconventional perspective – establish its central theme as being the many times and places, historic as well as contemporary, commonly as well as little known, in which the lives of humans and insects intersect.


In truth, perhaps Professor Raffles’ – he holds the post of associate professor of anthropology at The New School in New York City – approach in Insectopedia isn’t exactly unconventional, at least not in regard to the great encyclopedists of the Enlightenment. Far from the modern idea of an encyclopedia as being a compendium of discrete articles on various topics written dispassionately so as not to convey anything beyond the information on any given topic in its most essential form, Insectopedia unabashedly contains the enthusiasms and personal style of its author – and because of this most effectively sets the reader’s mind afire with new ideas, discoveries, and questions for further investigation. Whether Professor Raffles, while writing Insectopedia, consciously recalled Denis Diderot’s own explanation of his famous Encyclopédie‘s raison d’être – “to change the way people think” – is not known but given his astonishingly expansive mind, it would not be surprising to learn that he did, for Insectopedia most certainly lives up to Diderot’s own stated purpose.

In deference to the structure of the encyclopedia’s organizational form, the contents of Insectopedia are grouped into twenty-six alphabetically arranged chapters, each representing a particular idea, concept, or historic event that serves as its thematic center. Interestingly, not one chapter carries the name of any particular insect species; a point the reason for which, while being initially somewhat mysterious, becomes increasingly intelligible and appreciated as the reader progresses through the book, for to have done so would have potentially limited the scope of Professor Raffles’ frequent and always fascinating intellectual diversions.

In an author of lesser skill or more limited imagination, such diversions might be thought a sign of insufficient talent as a writer or perhaps an indication of a disorganized mind. Not so with Professor Raffles. No matter how far he may have seemed to journey away from the particular topic initially established at the beginning of each chapter, he never fails to return to it once again and leave things neatly, if admittedly often philosophically, summarized at its conclusion. Further evidence of his superb skill in this admittedly unconventional style is given by the frequent reappearances of creatures, people, and places introduced in earlier chapters.

And what creatures, people, and places they are. From the hidden depths of Brazil’s mosquito-filled Amazon jungle, across the locust-covered plains of Niger, to the nuclear-fallout created wasteland of Chernobyl that produces its own surrealistically mutated life forms, Professor Raffles’ investigations, discoveries, and philosophical musings never fail to captivate the mind of the reader. Take, for example, his presentation of the entomological, agricultural, political, social, and gastronomical elements pertinent to the lives of both humans and locusts on the plains of the African nation of Niger. Upon the completion of a reading of the single chapter in which all these things are discussed and their interwoven nature is explained, it is unlikely that the reader will fall back upon the hackneyed and simplistic phrase “a plague of locusts” ever again as it will seem trivial in comparison to the vast complexities that exist where the lives of these insects intersect with those of humans.

Should the reader be seeking a purely linear explanation of the world’s insect life in its myriad forms, this book will not serve. However should a book be desired that will bring to the reader aspects of both insect and human life not previously imagined, encourage the reëvaluation of previously held beliefs about the teeming small multitudes that exist all around us every day, and throw open (to borrow a metaphor from Aldous Huxley) the doors of perception and allow a storm of new ideas to come blowing in, bringing with them the seeds of innumerable further questions, then without a doubt, Insectopedia is exactly the book to be read.

Title: Insectopedia

Author: Hugh Raffles

Publisher: Pantheon

Format: Hardcover, 480 pages

ISBN-13: 978-0-375-42386-4

In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.