Three reasons you should read Susan Orlean’s On Animals even if, like me, you are a faithful subscriber to The New Yorker and eagerly consumed nearly all of the essays when they first appeared during the more than 25 years this collection spans: (1) Every essay in the book is magnificent. (2) Every essay in the book is magnificent. (3) Every essay in the book is magnificent ... Anyway, be honest: Your memory is not what it used to be (mine isn’t, at least) and revisiting these essays is like reading them anew. That’s not only because of the collision between memory and time. One of the delights of On Animals is the way it is so carefully arranged. This elegant curation makes one essay lead to another through manifold connections, some so tiny as to be almost subliminal, some functioning as updates across time, and all working in concert to convey ideas that no one essay could manage on its own ... Orlean’s way with a simile is unmatched in the English-speaking world ... Clearly, the essay collection as a genre holds no danger for Orlean, who has never written a skippable word in her life ... Part of what makes this book so immensely readable is the coupling of a brilliant essayist’s friendly, funny voice with a committed generalist’s all-embracing curiosity. There appears to be nothing in the world that doesn’t interest Orlean, and she has such a companionable way of conveying her fascinations that readers can’t help being fascinated too ... Each animal’s turn in the warm spotlight of Orlean’s gaze gives readers a chance to learn something enthralling about even the most ordinary of creatures ... time marches on, and leaving a tale in medias res, as reported essays inevitably do, is of little consequence when the tale itself is mesmerizing, and when the teller’s way with words is half the appeal ... It’s no surprise that a writer whose mind throws out similes like favors from a Mardi Gras parade is a writer who sees crucial connections between animals and people. This emphasis on interconnectedness emerges not just from one essay after another but also from the cumulative effect of the collection as a whole. Even more than the linguistic pyrotechnics, the friendly wit or the mesmerizing storytelling, that’s the true gift of On Animals. ... For though Orlean does not overtly wade into the thorn field of animal-rights debates, and though many of these essays predate a widespread public recognition of the escalating dangers of climate change and diminishing global biodiversity, what she understands about the human-animal relationship is fundamental to addressing both of those calamities: the fact that we belong to one another. Indeed, there is no human-animal relationship, for we are all animals, and what happens to the least among us on this crowded planet happens to us all.
The mix is remarkably eclectic, though with Ms. Orlean, that goes without saying. Does any prominent nonfiction writer range more widely? ... Ms. Orlean conveys the absurdity of the quest as well as its poignancy, relating the whole story with a tone of deadpan whimsy ... I tend to like Ms. Orlean’s writing best at the length of a long magazine piece, not a full-length book, but the international flavor of many of these pieces gives this collection a hybrid pleasure. The vivid snapshots add up to a broad cumulative impression.
I very much enjoyed Orlean’s perspective in these original, perceptive, and clever essays showcasing the sometimes strange, sometimes sick, sometimes tender relationships between people and animals ... whether Orlean is writing about one couple’s quest to find their lost dog, the lives of working donkeys of the Fez medina in Morocco, or a man who rescues lions (and happily allows even full grown males to gently chew his head), her pages are crammed with quirky characters, telling details, and flabbergasting facts ... Readers will find these pages full of astonishments ... Orlean excels as a reporter...Such thorough reporting made me long for updates on some of these stories ... But even this criticism only testifies to the delight of each of the urbane and vivid stories in this collection. Even though Orlean claims the animals she writes about remain enigmas, she makes us care about their fates. Readers will continue to think about these dogs and donkeys, tigers and lions, chickens and pigeons long after we close the book’s covers. I hope most of them are still well.