The Cockroach Papers:
A Compendium of History and Lore

Richard Schweld

Four Walls Eight Windows 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
Taking as its subject everyone's favourite insect, The Cockroach Papers is an entertaining mixture of natural and social history. In it Schweld gives us an outline of cockroach taxonomy (there are maybe ten thousand species of roaches in the order Blattaria), anatomy, ecology, senses (antenna for smell, cerci for detecting air movement), life-cycle (molting, reproduction), signalling (for mating and social aggregation), and so forth.

He goes on to describe cockroaches' often antagonistic relationship with people: in feeding, where people sometimes eat cockroaches but cockroaches more often eat people (usually dead but sometimes alive); in medical research, where cockroaches are a common subject; and in epidemiology, where cockroaches are a major contributor to asthma as well as a vector for many diseases. In the war against cockroaches, various methods are used by exterminators; they feature, sometimes more positively, in legend and folklore and traditional medicine. (It should be clear already, but The Cockroach Papers is not for the squeamish, or for dinner-table reading. One of the halftones is "a cockroach entering a human ear".)

Mixed in with all of this, Schweld includes vignettes of scientists who have played a key role in the study of cockroaches and accounts of his own experiences with them — taking a Tupperware container of giant Madagascan hissing cockroaches through airport security, in one case. There are also short extracts from novels featuring cockroaches and sizeable chunks of almost totally unrelated travel writing: working behind the bar in a mob hangout in New York, visiting Mexican sweat-shop town Ciudad Juarez, producing a documentary on glue-sniffing streetkids in Nicaragua, and buying beads in Morocco on the edge of the Sahara.

January 2000

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%T The Cockroach Papers
%S A Compendium of History and Lore
%A Schweld, Richard
%I Four Walls Eight Windows
%D 1999
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1568581378
%P 193pp