The book that changed me: Richard Dawkins, Doctor Dolittle's Post Office by Hugh Lofting
Sunday 28 February 1999
I was seven.
Do you identify with the hero?
I hope it doesn't sound pretentious to see Doctor Dolittle as a childhood forerunner of my adult hero, Charles Darwin. Compare his passionate love of natural history, the long voyages in Beagle-sized vessels encountering strange and exotic creatures, the notebooks filled with curious observations laced with ideas for future books; the gentle, courteous modesty.
Why did it strike you so much?
It is surely thanks to Dr Dolittle that I still bridle whenever I read (as I do almost daily) someone scorning concern for animal suffering, on the grounds that humans automatically and self-evidently take precedence. Dr Dolittle cared about human suffering too. This book begins when the Doctor finds Zuzana, whose husband has been sold into slavery, shedding tears into the canoe which she is hopelessly paddling after the wicked Jimmy Bones's ship. As with Darwin, the contemplation of slavery transforms Dr Dolittle's normal gentleness to passionate anger, and he resolves to rescue Zuzana's husband. It makes a rattling adventure story and displays the distinctive convention of all the Dolittle plots. The tricks and strategems, the getting out of scrapes, the happy endings, all turn upon a single suspension of disbelief. Dr Dolittle talks to animals, and all the world's animals will do anything for him. Jimmy Bones is finally downed by a broadside from a man-o'-war, but the cannon is aimed not by human eyes, which aren't keen enough to hit a mainmast at that range, but by Speedy the Swallow. And when offered a knighthood, the Doctor characteristically prefers a pound of good tea. What a role model!
Have you re-read it?
Many times. All the Dolittle books are good, but this is the best.
Does it feel the same as when you first read it?
Under his top hat, the Doctor is younger than he used to be. I still admire the imaginative wit with which the science fiction-like "convention" is repeatedly applied. The Post Office plot turns upon bird migration. Small birds carry single letters, larger birds heft parcels, all working not for wages but for love of the Doctor. The Emir of Ellebubu, who tries to starve the Doctor into asking the cormorants to hunt pearls for him, is worsted by a conveyor belt of small creatures ferrying food, and even crumbs of shaving soap, into the dungeon.
Would you recommend it?
Emphatically yes, not least because it is banned by sanctimonious librarians as "racist". Well, yes, it was written in the 1920s, and we've thankfully moved on since then. It's also sexist: Amazon invaders are predictably routed by an army of mice. What Dr Dolittle is not is speciesist, and that is a rare virtue today.
Richard Dawkins's latest book is Unweaving the Rainbow (Allen Lane pounds 20)
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
- 2 McKamey Manor: This 'extreme' haunted house is the stuff of nightmares
- 3 Russell Brand says he will 'probably' give up acting to focus on his revolution
- 4 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 5 David Beckham's Haig Club whisky is exactly what’s wrong with the Highlands
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
Pottermore: JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story featuring 'greying' 33-year-old wizard
JK Rowling to publish new Harry Potter story online for Halloween
Fury, film review: Brad Pitt stars in visceral and brutally ugly drama that reminds us war is hell
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Attacks on 'Ukip Calypso' show how skewed people’s priorities are
Poppy Appeal 2014: This is why I won't be wearing a red poppy this year