I don’t like fish. When I was young, my parents had to tell me that there were “fishing lakes” and “swimming lakes”. I’ve overcome that now, but I still don’t like them. I don’t even like eating fish. If I’m out getting fish and chips with friends, I just get the chips.
But something surprising happens when I get a little distance from them. If you place a sheet of glass between me and a fish, well it’s a whole different story. I find them fascinating. I could watch them swim all day.
Maybe this is why I loved The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt (NPR). I had a front row seat to one of the most exciting adventures about fish and I didn’t even have to get wet.
The book traverses in an unusual story arch for most non-fiction books. Instead of going from A to B to C like most history texts or biographies, it goes from A to Z to G.
Dragon Behind the Glass begins with Voight tagging along with the New York State Environmental Police. They’re on a bust for illegal pet animals in New York City. It’s here that she’s first introduced to the Asian arowana, or dragonfish as it is commonly known.
There are seven different species of arowana, but only the Asian arowana is illegal in the USA. It’s a multimillion dollar international industry. One filled with farmers, CEOs, and even gangsters. A mysterious culture surrounds the fish. People refuse to talk about it and some have even killed for the fish.
What begins as a mild interest on Voigt’s part becomes an obsession. By the end of the book, she has traveled all over Asia, Europe, and into the heart of the Amazon.
While reading, some of Voigt’s obsession rubbed off. I found myself bringing up strange fish facts to anyone who would listen. And there are a lot of amazing fish facts in this book.
Did you know that due to the Asian arowana, there is a whole sub-industry of fish plastic surgeons? Since the fish are considered more valuable when they look a particular way, fish breeders adjust physical aspects of the fish that are distasteful. If their fish wins at Aquarama (a large fish expo in Asia) then their fish could sell for anywhere between $15,000 and $150,000. That’s right! One fish for $150,000. It’s gotten so extreme, that fish owners have been known to threaten judges with guns for not awarding their fish with the highest honor.
Another fish fact:
Did you know that the Romans kept eels as pets? They even adorned them with jewelry! It’s said the Emperor Claudius’ mother gave her’s earrings. Let’s be clear, eels don’t have ears.
I could just go on and on. I’m going to be such a hit at parties.
As Voigt delves deeper in her hunt for the arowana, the book begins to shift its focus. Rather than a story of fish and smugglers, it becomes one of environmentalism. Although there are millions of arowana raised in fish farms, they’re dwindling in the wild. An animal that was once a local culinary standard for people all over the world, is now on the brink of extinction.
When she ventures into the Amazon, Voigt witnesses the encroaching settlements into the rainforest. It is a dark lining to the book. No matter how outlandish and incredible her adventures, the harsh reality looms. We’re losing species and habitats at an accelerating rate.
I’m going to finish with the most fascinating thing that I learned from this book. There is a fish that lives three thousand feet under a lake in Siberia. It is so deep that the pressure stops it from giving birth. So in order to reproduce, the mother must swim toward the surface to give birth. Because the pressure difference is so extreme, she explodes as she rises. While dying, she releases all her offspring. The little babes then swim down to the bottom of the lake to continue the lifecycle.
Ok, that fun fact was gory. But it exemplifies the book. Deep in the underground of our world, there are strange and magnificent things. But the moment that you bring them to the surface, you discover that they contain so many other leads to fascinating subjects. With each lead, you’re drawn back down into the discovery pool. It’s the perfect kind of non-fiction. It’s a never ending fact-finding discovery. The best kind.