A letter and drawing of a plesiosaur by Mary Anning

Most of the people in my department at work at big readers. We’re professors, so you would think that, but I meaning reading fiction for pleasure. We are always talking about what we are reading and occasionally recommend books to each other. Room was one such book that made the rounds. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest it. One of my colleagues in particular teases me about my taste in books by saying that I read too many “smart books.” I don’t think the books I read are particularly smart, but I do read a fair amount of classic literature, “good” contemporary literature, and biographies. However, I’ve read The Hunger Games trilogy (and loved them!) and like the occasional brain candy and formula novels like John Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark and I enjoy a predictable, but exciting Robin Cook medical thriller. I’m currently reading a disturbing memoir that I would not recommend and I have a Fannie Flagg novel waiting in the wings. This is mixed in with Dietrick Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems, and piles of slave narratives and books on pedagogy. While I’ll agree that the teaching and slavery books are tougher reads, which is why I need a break from them, the others are just pure pleasure and reading for enjoyment. However, I just accidentally read a smart book without even intending to.

The book was Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. I was just wandering the shelves at the library when my eyes landed on this book. I remember that Chevalier wrote Girl with the Pearl Earring and I had really enjoyed that book. I read the fly leaf and was intrigued by the strong female characters bucking the conventions of science and society as described, so I checked it out and brought it home. Through the first few chapters I was kind of bored. I used to finish a book no matter what, but since I have a literal list of over 200 books on my “to read” list, I have decided that life is too short to read books I don’t like. Now I have no qualms about chucking a book that isn’t drawing me in. However, I decided to stick this one out for a few more chapters and I’m so glad that I did.

The book is about a young girl, Mary Anning, who has “the eye” for finding fossils in along the shores of Lyme Regis, England in the early 1800s. She befriends a newcomer to town, the spinster (in her mid-20s, of course!), Elizabeth Philpot who is also an amateur fossil hunter. The story focuses on their unlikely friendship and later falling-out, as well as Mary’s growing popularity as a highly regarded and esteemed fossil hunter even though she is a largely uneducated member of the working class. Underlying stories of religious dissonance when prehistoric creatures were found (which called into question the age of the earth and therefore creation) and the place of women in 19th century society also emerged. As I got into the story, I was enjoying it for the story that it was–nothing more, nothing less. Until I got to the epilogue…

The author provided some follow-up information on Mary and Elizabeth as if they were real people.

Of course, I went straight to Google and began my research. Lo and behold they were real people! Not only were they actual living people in the 1800s, but poor, uneducated Mary Anning changed much of what the world knew about fossils, prehistoric animals, and geology. Mary found the first EVER complete ichthyosaur, followed by the first plesiosaur and pterosaur. Her discoveries led to acceptance of the scientific principle of extinction, which had previously been considered impossible and heretical. She also discovered that coprolites/bezoar stones were actually fossilized feces, which led to greater understanding of the diets and digestive systems of these prehistoric creatures, and she found fossilized ink sacs in belemnite fossils that she discovered. Although she became fairly well known known as a fossil hunter in England during her lifetime, she was never regarded as a scientist or as contributing much to the scientific community because of her gender and class. However, eventually two fossil fish, Acrodus anningiae and Belenostomus anningiae, were named after her. In 2010, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge named Anning as one of the 10 British women who have most influenced science. Her death in 1847 was recorded by the Geological Society of London, which didn’t admit women until 1904. Almost two decades after her death, Charles Dickens wrote of Mary Anning, “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” Her friend, Elizabeth Philpot, also contributed many fossilized fish specimens and helped Mary become known to the geology and palentology communities. Both Elizabeth and Mary have fossils on display in the Natural History Museum in London and the Oxford University Museum.

I normally don’t care a whit about fossils, but the story of the women’s friendship across classes and their fight for acceptance and validation in the male-dominated scientific community initially grabbed me. Who knew I would end up learning about two highly influential women, religious arguments of the day, and class/gender issues in 19th century England? I also learned a lot about different types of fossils and prehistoric creatures, as well as paleontology. So, yes, I read a fiction book just looking for a good story, but I ended up learning a whole lot. It was indeed a “smart book.”

A sketch of Mary Anning in her later years

And for the record…
I tease this same coworker for listening to smart radio (NPR), while I’m listening to classic rock, 80s, or showtunes on my iPod. And we both watch dumb TV.