I guess my interest in rats stemmed from seeing the film OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983). This film was promoted as a horror film, but is a sort of a “Moby Dick” story set in Manhattan. A man with a nice home, nice family, etc., finds there is a rat in his home. He proceeds to try to get rid of it and finds himself in a struggle that destroys his home, his life, and his humanity. He gives up all he values to stop this one intelligent and vengeful rat. The film is full of rat facts and rat lore. This film for me transformed rats from being an unpleasant part of the scenery into fascinating and even impressive animals. Among other things they are scavengers who will chew through iron or solid concrete to get to their food supply.

Robert Sullivan, a writer I have seen published in “The New Yorker,” has written RATS: OBSERVATIONS ON THE HISTORY & HABITAT OF THE CITY'S MOST UNWANTED INHABITANTS. Sullivan took a year to just observe rats and also to research the history of rats in Manhattan. He sometimes goes beyond the bounds of Manhattan, as in telling a little about the Black Death in Europe, but for the most part his subject is rats in Manhattan. His description of his rat observation gear makes quite a picture of himself, apparently, going out to back alleys and garbage dumps to observe. Just why he spent so much time observing the rats is a mystery because there is very little of his observations on rats in the book. In fact, I learned more about rats from OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN, unreliable as that was, than I did reading his book. Sullivan describes going out to watch the rats, but he keeps getting distracted by the people he meets around the rats or by giving tangential stories like the history of a legendary rat catcher. His subject matter is not so much rats, but the people whose lives are affected by rats. And the author does not need the night-vision gear he talks about to find out about humans. Sullivan does report the rat behavior he sees but does not interpret it at any depth. I spent most of my reading time waiting for him to get to the rats.

The book is very much anecdotal. He has footnotes and copious chapter notes in the back of the book. They are only a little more concrete with more specific information about the books he read and they contain more anecdotes. But this is a non-fiction book without an index. That usually indicates to me that the publisher wants the book to be considered breezy rather than serious. Even the chapter titles are not very descriptive. Most chapters have single-word titles. And the one word may be as opaque as "Excellent." (That is the chapter on Bobby Corrigan, champion rat catcher.) If somewhere among the light prose the reader has gleaned a fact that he wants to go back to re-read, the book offers minimal help in finding the material again. In spite of all the footnotes, Sullivan's book seems to be little more than a "beach read" passing for a scholarly work. The book is entertaining, but not very serious. Sullivan's book should not be placed in the same category with books such as THE HIDDEN LIFE OF DOGS by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas that have serious and valuable insights.

I did not learn very much about rats reading this book and I am not sure that Sullivan learned much about rats in his year studying them. I will look for a better book on the subject.