You won’t need to like fish to enjoy Emily Voigt’s illuminating look into the competitive – and dangerous – world of The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish.
Voigt’s book reads like a spy novel. Her fast-paced storytelling sweeps you into a whirlwind adventure around the globe in her quest to find the wild Asian arowana, a rare and captivating fish. What begins as a journalist’s fascination with the world’s most expensive aquarium fish turns into a story seeped in nostalgia for the age of scientific exploration.
It’s easy to see why her book received the National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society Journalism Award in 2017. Her story takes you first into the underground world of the illegal exotic animal trade in the United States, then off to meet the fish-obsessed elite in Asia, and to eventually linger among the fishermen living along the Amazon. Voigt shows us society through a fishbowl lens, altering the way we perceive our natural world and ourselves.
The Dragon Behind the Glass is the ultimate tale of scientific colonialism, an unofficial term used to explain how early explorers set out with an “in the name of science” mentality to describe, and thereby conquer, the natural world. Discoveries and subsequent naming of species became more competitive as the world progressed towards the twentieth century. Although experts have estimates, it is unclear how many species are still left to be discovered in our world today. Ichthyology is fortunate enough to be a field where there are still many discoveries yet to be made: in 2012, UNESCO reported that an average of 2,000 fish are being discovered each year.
Halfway through her book, Voigt pulls you in with the thrill of the chase. Enthused with the possibility of helping a notorious ichthyologist describe a possible new species of arowana, distinguishable by unique script-like markings on its scales, she sets out to obtain him a specimen from the wild. While many books tend to flatline in the middle, Voigt’s constant and relentless pursuit of one fish (or fish expert) after another keeps the reader engaged and makes for a quick, effortless read. By the middle, you feel like you’ve left the spy thriller behind and are now having a good conversation over dinner with the author.
Voigt’s ability to almost nonchalantly describe her incredibly dangerous and ridiculous escapades is both humorous and humble. She could have exaggerated the world of wealthy arowana owners and glorified the eccentric men who spend thousands of dollars on, well, fish. But she approaches every scene in her story with the skepticism and curiosity of an experienced journalist. Although this is her first book, it was recognized as a Best Science Book of the Year by Library Journal.
It’s unusual for me to have no complaints about a book. Often there are minor details that bother me, remaining questions nagging my mind, or a general dislike for the author in the worst cases. But Emily Voigt delivers nothing but the best, and I liked her writing enough to hope she’ll bring us more books in the future. She’s raw and honest, which makes for a good storyteller. She admits the times it feels like she’s on a wild goose chase. The captive arowana fish do little to enchant her, despite writing an entire book about the species.
The Dragon Behind the Glass is an illuminating look into a topic many of us never knew existed. You’ll find yourself thinking about fish a little too much by the time you close the book.