Leviathan or, The Whale, By Philip Hoare

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The Independent Culture

How rare to encounter any book that holds you utterly in its grasp from first page to last. Reading this cetacean love letter, the everyday world falls away. Beguiled by the mammoths of the deep, your mind moves through oceans.

Like Melville, who permeates this book, Hoare is obsessed by the sperm whale. Literally in a class of its own, the creature's nearest land relative is the hippo. It is, however, decidedly carnivorous, consuming 300 to 700 squid per day. It has the largest brain of any animal (19lbs to our seven), has sex in the missionary position, will die to protect members of its family, lives as long as us and can produce a 200-decibel click that can be heard for 100 miles.

Hoare's account of man's devastating exploitation of the whale is fascinating, saddening and heart-thumpingly exciting.

The harpooned creature hauled its tormenters at 25 mph, "the fastest man had travelled on water". Finally, the shout "There's fire in the chimney" indicated it was spouting blood.

Hoare has produced a book of oceanic scope and endless interest. The fag-puffing Natural History Museum dissector pictured on page 95 also appears in Richard Fortey's book on the museum Dry Store No.1. A legend in his time, Peter Purves is described by Fortey as "habitually sozzled... In this condition he could perform the delicate slicing [of] whales. Apparently he was much less adept when sober."