Jane Goodall Explains How Books Led Her to Live Among the Chimps

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

Depends on my mood. Before the pandemic, when I had more time, I was reading books about World War II and the courage of those working underground in the resistance movements — especially in the German resistance. And books about the Holocaust and the horrors of the slave trade. Or fictitious novels by authors such as Barbara Pym and Graham Greene, or romantic fiction by authors such as Rosamunde Pilcher or Mary Wesley. When I am exhausted, these days—mostly audiobooks.

I avoid most science fiction — except John Wyndham, who wrote “The Day of the Triffids” and “The Midwich Cuckoos.”

How do you organize your books?

Sadly, though everything was once nicely organized, I have no time to organize, and everyone kindly sends me their books, and there are the books from my childhood, and my mother’s childhood. Then there are the books of two aunts and my sister and her family of her. The huge Bibles of my grandfather, a Congregational minister, even some medical books of my Uncle Eric. We cannot bear to part with them. There are books in shelves on all three floors of our family house, along three long passages, in heaps in the office (now a chaotic mess — no time — things get shoved in), on shelves, on the table and in piles on the floor. There are sometimes even books piled up on the stairs.

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

If they examined the catholic nature of all the piles of books, there is nothing that would surprise them.

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

There was no TV when I was a child. I learned from books—and nature. I read every book about animals I could find. Doctor Dolittle and Tarzan led me to dream about living with animals in Africa. And I spent hours and hours learning from a wonderful “grown-up” book, recently republished: “The Miracle of Life,” which took one through evolution, the different animal species from primates to insects to plants, human anatomy and the history of medicine. I collected poetry books — I especially loved the Romantic poetry of Keats, Shelley, etc., and then the war poets like Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. I loved some of Shakespeare’s plays. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, made a huge impression on me, so that I am passionate about racial discrimination and work to address it, even in a small way, by bringing young people together from different cultures in JGI’s Roots & Shoots environmental and humanitarian program for young people.

If you could require President Biden to read one book, what would it be?

I would not have presumed — but I asked someone connected with the Biden administration and he said that Biden is swamped daily in horrible news and that I should recommend my book (about to be published by Celadon) “The Book of Hope.” In which, prompted by the interviewer Doug Abrams, I outline my conviction that if we take action now we can turn things around. If we lose hope now — if the president of the United States loses hope — then we are doomed. We must get together and take action. Now, before it is too late.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Shakespeare, Tolkien, Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. Or, oh — I want Keats, Byron, Rachel Carson, Dickens, Darwin — and, oh, I so want Churchill and, and, and — my dinner party will need a banqueting hall to fit them all in!

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