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The 1,328-Page Novel That Captivated the Primatologist Frans de Waal

Since gender supposedly transcends biology, its relation to sex and sex differences is a thorny issue. But even books that stress the cultural side, such as Margaret Mead’s “Male and Female,” can’t get around a few universal human gender differences. The best modern read is perhaps a combination of Deborah Blum’s “Sex on the Brain” and Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex,” with the first being supportive of biology and the second more skeptical.

How do you organize your books?

Since I rely on my personal library for writing, books are categorized by topic, the main three ones being studies of apes, studies of monkeys (primatologists never confuse the two) and animal cognition. Further, there are sections on neuroscience, philosophy, evolution, nonprimate animals, anthropology and human psychology. I also have quite a few art and photography books. Oh, and the entire “Brehms Tierleben,” the 19th-century German animal encyclopedia by Alfred Brehm, printed in a nearly illegible gothic font. I keep fiction books in other parts of the house.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

My godmother always brought me a big book for my birthday, which I’d read avidly. She may not have known how happy she made me until I told her much later. They were adventure books, such as those by Jules Verne or Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” I also borrowed my brothers’ books: With five brothers, there was ample choice. I devoured bandes dessinées — comic books in the Franco-Belgian tradition, such as “Tintin,” “Willy & Wanda” and “Asterix.”

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

In 1827, Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist, defied convention by admitting women to his academic lectures. With men sneering at their presence, women made up half the audience of his popular classes. Von Humboldt was a pioneer in so many ways. I knew his name well before I opened “The Invention of Nature,” by Andrea Wulf, but not his full story. I read with amazement about his travels across the globe to discover how all of nature is interconnected. If we now talk about earth as one huge ecosystem, which humans cannot treat (and ruin) any way they want, we have von Humboldt to thank for it.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun” to see if his speculative fiction is as good as Murakami’s. It was quite good, but not as good. When I read novels, I like some history in them, so that I also learn about a certain place or time. For the same reason, I read history books whether they are real or imaginative, such as recently “The Spinoza Problem,” by Irvin Yalom. The books I enjoy the most, however, are straightforward nonfiction books, such as hopefully the next one on my list, which is “A Most Remarkable Creature,” by Jonathan Meiburg, on the caracara, a raptor.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

One of my treasures is a book received long ago from fellow students as a present for my Ph.D. It is a beautifully illustrated volume about Hieronymus Bosch, the medieval painter. Many people find his art disturbing, but I was born in the city where he lived and worked, and grew up with his imaginative visions of heaven and hell. I like his attention to facial expressions while depicting humanity’s sins and follies. There are also tons of animals in his paintings mixed with trees, fruits and figures that are half human, half animal. Bosch was the world’s first surrealist.

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