Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

“Alex & Me is the remarkable true story of an extraordinary relationship between psychologist Irene M. Pepperberg and Alex, an African Grey parrot who proved scientists and accepted wisdom wrong by demonstrating an astonishing ability to communicate and understand complex ideas. A New York Times bestseller and selected as one of the paper’s Top Ten Books of the Year, Alex & Me is much more that the story of an incredible scientific breakthrough. It’s a poignant love story and an affectionate remembrance of Pepperberg’s irascible, unforgettable, and always surprising best friend.”

Although this book obviously tackles an ongoing and complicated scientific experiment, Pepperberg never talks over her audience’s heads. Some scientific information is needed to get the context of some of Alex’s tests, but they’re presented simply and concisely. Readers are likely to learn a lot about the process of testing for results in the sciences. And such information allows readers to more fully appreciate Alex’s accomplishments.

There’s actually a lot going on in this book. It covers Alex’s tests during the ongoing experiment, his owner’s journey into a completely unexpected career and where it took her, the response of the scientific community in general over the course of time, and even touches on a few of the other studies going on (such as Koko the signing gorilla). The stories are so intertwined, though, that no one thread usurps any of the others. Alex is the main binding agent in all of these disparate yarns, and the author never loses sight of that fact. This book is, first and foremost, about Alex, and so Pepperberg never deviates far from him and his charming antics.

It’s a smart bit of editing that allows readers to follow Alex’s triumphs in a linear matter, each one building on the ones before it. There’s nothing scattershot about the author’s approach. Maybe having written so many scientific papers detailing Alex’s progress has paid off in this book. The writing is concise yet personable, straightforward yet humorous. I would be surprised if readers didn’t laugh out loud a time or two at some of the tricks Alex pulled on his hapless human friends.

There’s no telling what Alex would have accomplished, had he lived. His death is not only a great loss to the scientific community, but also a great loss to one wonderfully stubborn and creative researcher who was determined to change the world’s definition of “bird-brain”. Read Alex and Me and prepare to be amazed and touched.

This review was originally posted on August 2, 2010.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis Branch.

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