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Harper's Magazine
Friday, February 19th, 2010
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Notebooks from New Guinea: Field Notes of a Tropical Biologist

by Vojtech Novotny

Notebooks from New Guinea

A review by Benjamin Moser

The world is just as big, or as small, as it ever was, but in an age when we can watch live feeds from street corners in the Maldives and have a Mongolian yurt painlessly dispatched to a back yard in Cincinnati -- an age when Dick Cheney's former residence at the Naval Observatory is visible on Google Maps -- it can be hard to imagine what else is left to discover. Which writers are going to inspire new generations of travelers, as Richard Halliburton did for my father, or as Pico Iyer did for me? Since the days of Conrad Hilton, who had the brilliant insight that middle-class Americans wouldn't mind spending the day wandering through farthest Turkmenistan as long as they could return in the evening to a replica of Palm Beach complete with potable water and poolside cocktails, travel has become tourism: easy, cheap, fun, exotic enough to impress your friends but rarely treacherous or unpredictable.

So it comes as a relief to learn, in Notebooks from New Guinea: Field Notes of a Tropical Biologist (Oxford University Press, $34.95), by the Czech entomologist Vojtech Novotny, that New Guinea really is as wild as it sounds, and that there still is a lot to discover: its amazing linguistic diversity ("Karkar Island is the conical tip of a volcano with no major obstacles on the ground, yet its slopes are divided into two language zones -- Takia and Waskia -- by frontier consisting of a stream, no more than two metres wide"); the biological reasons to discourage cannibalism, a practice that modern missionaries abhorred ("perhaps also because it could affect them personally"); or how ecotourism proved so surprisingly appealing to New Guinean villagers ("the vision of white men descending out of the sky and putting money and sundry goods into the villagers' hands had long been a standard feature of the mythology of cargo cults").

Novotny's enthusiasm for a country where he has worked for many years, his humor ("Wanang was not one of the wordlist centres of civilization, even by the modest standards of the malaria-infested forests along the lower reaches of the river Ramu"), and his ability to convey the fascination of scientific research make this book a perfect answer to anyone who thinks that everything had been catalogued and scanned, an unorthodox travel book that restores our faith in the weirdness of the world.

Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.


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