Summary and book reviews of Rats by Robert Sullivan

Rats

Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

By Robert Sullivan

Rats
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2004,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2005,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

Behold the rat, dirty and disgusting! Robert Sullivan turns the lowly rat into the star of the most perversely intriguing, remarkable, and unexpectedly elegant book of the season.

Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live simply in the wild and contemplate his own place in the world by observing nature. Robert Sullivan went to a disused, garbage-filled little alley in lower Manhattan to contemplate the city and its lesser-known inhabitants—by observing the rat.

Rats live in the world precisely where humans do; they survive on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage. While dispensing gruesomely fascinating rat facts and strangely entertaining rat-stories—everyone has one, it turns out—Sullivan gets to know not just the beast but its friends and foes: the exterminators, the sanitation workers, the agitators and activists who have played their part in the centuries-old war between human city dweller and wild city rat. With a notebook and night-vision gear, he sits nightly in the streamlike flow of garbage and searches for fabled rat-kings, sets out to trap a rat, and eventually travels to the Midwest to learn about rats in Chicago, Milwaukee, and other cities of America. With tales of rat fights in the Gangs of New York era and stories of Harlem rent strike leaders who used rats to win tenants basic rights, Sullivan looks deeper and deeper into the largely unrecorded history of the city and its masses—its herd-of-rats-like mob. Funny, wise, sometimes disgusting but always compulsively readable, Rats earns its unlikely place alongside the great classics of nature writing.

Did you know?

  • 26% of all electric cable breaks and 18% of all phone cable disruptions are caused by rats, 25% of all fires of unknown origin are rat-caused, and rats destroy an estimated 1/3 of the world’s food supply each year. The rat has been called the world’s most destructive mammal—other than man.
  • Male and female rats may have sex twenty times a day. A female can produce up to twelve litters of twenty rats a year: one pair of rats has the potential for 15,000 descendants in a year.

Chapter One

WHEN I WROTE the following account of my experiences with rats, I lived in an apartment building on a block filled with other apartment buildings, amidst the approximately eight million people in New York City, and I paid rent to a landlord that I never actually met-though I did meet the superintendent, who was a very nice guy. At this moment, I am living out of the city, away from the masses, in a bucolic little village with about the same number of inhabitants as my former city block. I wouldn't normally delve into my own personal matters, except that when I mention my rat experiences to people, they sometimes think I took extraordinary measures to investigate them, and I didn't. All I did was stand in an alley--a filth-slicked little alley that is about as old as the city and secret the way alleys are secret and yet just a block or two from Wall Street, from Broadway, and from what used to be the World Trade Center. All I did was take a spot next to the trash and wait...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

I could fill pages with anecdotes from this book but instead I encourage you to go and read the very extensive excerpt at BookBrowse for yourself. The excerpt is unique to BookBrowse and I guarantee you'll come away with lots of wonderful facts to send shivers down your friends' spines for years to come!   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The New Yorker

For a year, Sullivan made pilgrimages to a 'filth-slicked little alley' near City Hall to observe rats in their natural habitat. He also trolled libraries for rat lore and interviewed exterminators, biologists, politicians, and ordinary citizens about the timeless struggle against New York’s 'most unwanted inhabitants.' The logic behind his peregrinations is often elusive, but the result is a wealth of satisfying information.

The New York Times - William Grimes

Robert Sullivan sees the rat as much more than a pest. For him, the rat is the New Yorker par excellence, the plucky immigrant who set foot in Manhattan just about the time of the American Revolution and, by guile and persistence, put down roots and prospered. The rat is also, for those who care to look closely enough, a living map of the city, so tightly integrated into the local environment that to know one is to know the other. Early on, Sullivan goes so far as to call the rat ''our mirror species,'' a faithful follower that turns up wherever humans pitch their tents and toss out their garbage.

The Washington Post - Phillip Lopate

Few subjects would seem less immediately appealing to the general reader than rats. So all the more credit must go to Robert Sullivan, who has written an immensely lively, enjoyable, learned, witty and, yes, appealing book on these damnable creatures.

Library Journal - Michael D Cramer

Well written and fun to read, this book has only one drawback - a lack of more detailed information on rat biology. Recommended for all natural history and large urban collections.

Booklist - Ray Olson

Like a typical bit of Talk, the book never lets its ostensible subject divert too much attention from its author.....So it just seems like it's always about Sullivan. At least it's also always enlighteningly entertaining, like Talk of the Town.

Publishers Weekly

In this excellent narrative, Sullivan uses the brown rat as the vehicle for a labyrinthine history of the Big Apple....This book is a must pickup for every city dweller, even if you'll feel like you need to wash your hands when you put it down. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Beyond the Book

Rat Facts

  • 26% of all electric cable breaks and 18% of all phone cable disruptions are caused by rats.
  • 25% of all fires of unknown origin are rat-caused.
  • Rats destroy an estimated 1/3 of the world’s food supply each year.
  • The rat has been called the world's most destructive mammal—other than man.
  • Male and female rats may have sex twenty times a day. A female can produce up to twelve litters of twenty rats a year: one pair of rats has the potential for 15,000 descendants in a year.
  • Of the estimated 25-35 million animals used in research experiments in the USA every year, about 95% are birds or rodents. 
  • Rats cannot vomit.

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