Becoming a Tiger is a perfect book to read while waiting. McCarthy’s presentation of short definitions and anecdotal discussions, broken down into one and two-page segments, lends itself perfectly to easing the time in a traffic jam, saving doctor’s patients from the horrors of decades old magazines, and passing time in the most private room of American households.
It’s not obvious why McCarthy decided to present her information in this way. Perhaps she feared that the scientific side of animal learning would be too dull to hold the prolonged attention of a casual reader. If so, it’s a needless worry. McCarthy’s style is casual and engaging, salted with humorous commentary that highlights the commonalities between human behavior and that of other given animals. She gives a sly nod to human egotism, referring to “our wonderful selves” and boasting about our truly unusual verbal skills. But she’s quick to remind readers that ours is only one of countless possible species paths, pointing out that we are “A poor substitute for a hairy cameldine” and laughing at the anthrocentric failings of her own profession. Her light touch makes sometimes heavy material into a book that could consume an afternoon.
But not in this format. While the theme of the book and even the chapters is obvious in each brief vignette, there’s no sense of an overall narrative, and the frequent shifts in characters, questions, and timelines prevents the flowing concentration needed to settle in for long term reading. This may make individual facts and stories stand out more, but it makes finishing the entire book more of a slog than would otherwise be the case.
Still, each little story is its own reward, providing the sort of useful fact or funny tale sure to be handy to break the ice at a party or help win a trivia contest. Each story has its own small lesson about animal learning, but McCarthy resists drawing overarching conclusions, leaving readers to decide for themselves what all these experiments prove about nature, nurture, and the influence of each on the behavior of all animals, including ourselves.
Of course, they may prove nothing except that humans are an intrinsically nosy species. In which case, McCarthy’s next book will find itself a guaranteed – and deserved- audience.