Dogs, Cats, and Books
A friend of mine has a book coming out that’s told from a dog’s point of view. The book is terrific–I had the good fortune to read an advance copy–and if you’ve ever loved a dog, it will ring very true for you and wring some tears from you as well. (Check it out at www.adogspurpose.com and while you’re on the site, click on the dog of the week contest and vote for Harvey, the yellow lab who’s lying down almost cheek to cheek with a really good-looking Persian cat dude. My daughter nominated Harvey and he hasn’t won yet so we could use the votes.)
Anyway, this has me thinking about animal books, both fiction and nonfiction. It also inspired me to look up pet bookstores online, a niche I’ve never heard of. If anyone knows of a bookstore catering to pet owners, I’d love to hear about it. (I’d be even more fascinated by accounts of a bookstore catering to the actual pets, but as I mentioned in the title of this post, I really don’t think you’re going to find a lot of animal readers because of that whole missing opposable thumb thing. Maybe Kindles will change that. I’m fairly certain I could train Harvey to use a Kindle.) I have found some online bookstores that offer a range of books about dogs, but I’d love to know if there’s a real Indie somewhere that stocks mostly animal-related titles.
Animal books fall into several categories. There’s the advice book, best exemplified by the Monks of New Skete and their line of really smart books about training and raising puppies. I don’t know anyone who’s serious about dogs who hasn’t consulted one of their books–they really do seem to be the best ones out there. Then there’s the non-fiction memoir kind of book. like Marley & Me which I haven’t actually read, but I did see the movie (the ultimate Hollywood phrase). Loved the dog, hated the humans.
Animal fiction–stories in which the protagonist is actually an animal–run the risk of being twee. I remember when everyone around me was reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull (man, that dates me). I couldn’t stand it. On the other hand, I read The Incredible Journey when I was little and loved it, and don’t even get me started on my passion for Watership Down. No, do, because I have a funny story about that. My father told me to read it. I was probably like 12 at the time and deep into my “I won’t do anything my parents tell me to do” stage (I’m still waiting for that one to pass). Anyway, my dad said I’d like it, I said, “I’m not interested in a book about rabbits” and he said, “Just try it,” and I said, “I won’t like it,” and he said I had to read a chapter before lunch, and then by dinner time I hadn’t lifted my head up from the book and I finished it in like two days because I loved it so so much.
So books about animals can be fantastic if you can achieve that delicate balance between over-anthropomorphizing them and keeping the audience engaged and sympathetic. (One interesting thing about my friend’s book A Dog’s Purpose is that he was very careful to keep the dog’s comprehension of any dialogue to the only words a dog would understand, so while the reader can follow a conversation, the dog himself only registers his name and words like “walk” or “biscuit”–it’s a really nice way of staying true to the narrator’s doggy nature while letting the reader have the information he or she needs.)
The truth is, those of us who are pet owners are a pretty ready audience, eager to be pleased. There are, I think, universal experiences that come with pet ownership: it’s a more challenging and frustrating experience than usually represented (a lot messier too in all sorts of ways) and yet there is something about those moments when you’re curled up with your dog or cat or snake or whatever that can make life feel that much more endurable. If a book can tap into that feeling, it’s going to get to you (if you like pets–I know some people, mostly in the family I grew up in, who don’t).
And if someone can tell me why my cat always waits until I’ve actually started peeing to paw at the bathroom door, could you please do that? I don’t care if it’s in a book of advice, a memoir, or a novel: just tell me why I can hold the door open for ten minutes, coaxing him to come in and he won’t but the second I give up, close the door and proceed with the task at hand, that’s when he starts scratching at it furiously. If you can explain that, I’ll buy your book, whatever it costs.
(Confidential to Kim: are we allowed to talk about bodily functions in this blog? If not, my bad.)