four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
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A-Dry Storeroom No 1Richard Fortey, a paleontologist who specializes in trilobites (a group of extinct arthropods) at the Natural History Museum in London, is the award-winning author of Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, and The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past.

The Topic: In this insider’s guide to the musty rooms and hidden drawers of London’s Natural History Museum, Richard Fortey offers nothing less than a history of Earth’s stunning biodiversity, our own evolution, and the scientific methods (like DNA sequencing) that have altered our understanding of the natural world. As Fortey introduces us to our painstakingly catalogued ancestors—many of which have yet to be named—he introduces us to an equally eccentric cast of scientists: an expert on belemnites (the fossils of squid-like creatures), a botany curator who courted prostitutes, an expert on parasitic screw worms who prevented their spread across Africa, a fish expert who discovered a lost Mozart manuscript. Yet, Fortey stresses, those "who work in the secret museum at understanding animals and plants remind us, paradoxically, what it is to be human."
Knopf. 352 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 0307263622

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[G]iven the intense interest of visitors to go ‘behind-the-scenes’ and peer into the collections spaces and research labs, I wager this enjoyable book will delight a wide swath of readers. … Fortey’s wit and his knack for uncovering arcane facts, connections and stories will remind some of Stephen Jay Gould presenting, say, ‘Night at the Museum.’" Harvey Webster

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Its author, trilobite specialist Richard Fortey, is as engaging and funny as his title is musty and his zoological specialty extinct. … The photographs are copious and fascinating, including electron microscope views of hideous mite larvae and a shot of the inebriated cetologist poking at a whale carcass. Worth the price of admission." Sara Lippincott

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Fortey brings to life not only the science but the quirky scientists, their midnight trysts (who knew?) and personal quirks. … The author balances academic rigor with entertaining detail—with an ample measure of dry British wit—along with a capable working history of the stewardship of the British museum system." Kevin J. Hamilton

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As he ambles through the museum, Fortey takes no little delight in sticking his head into offices and pulling open drawers containing row after row of specimens. It’s an effective way of telling his story: He moves through the museum’s different departments, lingering on diversions when it suits him and moving on when he’s ready." Sean Hughes

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The role of museums and their importance is the real theme of Fortey’s book. And he shows again and again that for all they sound fusty and dusty, they are much more than repositories of the past. They have a vital role to play now and in the future." Olivia Judson

Critical Summary

"The Natural History Museum is, first and foremost, a celebration of what time has done to life," writes Fortey, whose engaging book similarly commemorates the vast record of life on Earth. As he meanders through the halls of the museum’s back rooms, Fortey proves to be an excellent, witty guide to the scientists and specimens that give testament to this history. Far from being a dry read, Dry Storeroom No. 1 weaves together colorful anecdotes about the scientists, their research, and the value of museums, defending evolution while admitting how much we still don’t know about the Earth’s species (starting with beetles, for example). A few critics pointed out that Fortey errs on the side of including too much information, but most readers will embrace his guide to, well, everything having to do with life.

Also by the Author

Life A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (1998): Award Star A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Fortey traces life from its first appearance to the present. "Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book" (New York Times Book Review).