5 Gerald Durrell Books That Will Change the Way You See the World

The wildlife writer's madcap travelogues.

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Photos courtesy Penguin Random House

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“The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider’s web, and like a spider’s web, if you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads that make up the web. But we’re not just touching the web, we’re tearing great holes in it; we’re waging a sort of biological war on the world around us. We are felling forests quite unnecessarily and creating dust bowls, and thereby even altering the climate. We are clogging our rivers with industrial filth, and we are now polluting the sea and the air.”

If you haven’t read Gerald Durrell’s work, we recommend you bookmark this list, and order your first set now. Gerald Durrell is responsible for some of the best travel and wildlife writing there is. The naturalist and conservationist passed away in 1995, but his passion for conservation remains unparalleled as does his brilliant—and incredibly witty—style of writing.

His work to protect endangered species and preserve the natural world lives on after him in the reassuring, able hands of the Durrell Wildlife Trust, located on the Jersey Islands. The group’s passionate work has ensured that eight target species like the Golden Lion Tamarin and the Mallorcan Midwife Toad, have moved lower in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) endangered species list. Read more about the Trust’s vital work here and here. For a traveller’s perspective, go here.

We give you five must-read Gerald Durrell books that will take you around the world, and view it in his inimitable way. Because once you see the world through his eyes, you will never look at it the same again. We actually recommend everything he has ever written, but start with these.

My Family and Other Animals

“Each day had a tranquility a timelessness about it so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of the night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us glossy and colorful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.

“My childhood in Corfu shaped my life. If I had the craft of Merlin, I would give every child the gift of my childhood.”

“Gradually the magic of the island [Corfu] settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen.

Undoubtedly Durrell’s most popular book, My Family and Other Animals follows the author’s days of growing up in the dreamy Greek island of Corfu with his mother and older siblings. Naturally, the local flora and fauna play a major role in the book. But the details that Durrell captures makes the town and the island come alive. You can hear the olive trees at dusk and see the crystal-clear waters where he went sailing with his dogs, Widdle and Puke. His writing was compelling enough to inspire one NGT staff member to actually travel to Corfu.

Three Singles to Adventure

“‘Three singles to Adventure please,’ I said, trying to look as nonchalant as possible. ‘Yes, sir,’ said the clerk. ‘First or second class?'”

Durrell’s work takes him to South America to a town called Adventure. Here he has run-ins with all sorts of creatures, including an angry sloth, a galloping anteater and a slightly temperamental anaconda. His journey through the landscape is revealing of culture and the way life operated in the 1950s. This is one of his earlier books and though the slant towards conservation is as strong in this book as some of his later books, his wonder at the country and his observations are worth a read.

The Aye-Aye and I

“Japan and Hong Kong are steadily whittling away at the last of the elephants, turning their tusks (so much more elegant left on the elephant) into artistic carvings. In much the same way, the beautiful furs from leopard, jaguar, Snow leopard, Clouded leopard and so on, are used to clad the inelegant bodies of thoughtless and, for the most part, ugly women. I wonder how many would buy these furs if they knew that on their bodies they wore the skin of an animal that, when captured, was killed by the medieval and agonizing method of having a red-hot rod inserted up its rectum so as not to mark the skin.”

This book takes you into the jungles of Madagascar. Durrell’s quest to find the Aye-Aye, thought to be extinct becomes a brilliant trail through one of the richest biodiversity landscapes in the world. His description of this wonderful, bizarre creature makes you fall in love with it and the other species he meets along the way, like the ring-tailed Lemur and the cat-like Fosa.

Birds, Beasts and Relatives

“Adult ant-lions come in a variety of sizes and, for the most part, rather drab colouring. They look like extremely untidy and demented dragon-flies. They have wings that seem out of all proportion to their bodies and these they flap with a desperate air, as though it required the maximum amount of energy to prevent them from crashing to the earth.”

This is the second part of the Corfu trilogy, after My Family and Other Animals. Durrell continues to weave in and out of hilarious family anecdotes, magical moments with the island’s wildlife and capturing the wonder of his formative years as a naturalist.

The Overloaded Ark

“As I watched the pulsing fire among the trees and heard the beat of the drum merge and tremble with the voices, forming an intricate pattern of sound, I knew that someday I would have to return or be haunted forever by the beauty and mystery that is Africa.” 

The Overloaded Ark was Durrell’s first book, published in 1953. It chronicles a six-month journey that Durrell undertook to Cameroon to acquire various birds and beasts. He paints a vivid picture of the country, its landscape and its people. One of the highlights of the book is a chain-smoking chimpanzee.

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