Dec 30, 2011

Alex and Me

by Irene Pepperberg

Even though he's so famous that the author had to devote the entire opening chapter (which I might skip next time, by the way) to how many people recognized and mourned his death, I never heard of this parrot until I saw other book reviews about it.  Alex and Me is about the author's work with him, training him to label objects with words and answer questions so she could delve into how complex his thinking process might be. I was pretty impressed with his accomplishments: correctly naming colors, shapes, textures, quantities. Learning to compare and categorize. Learning phrases from what students around him said and applying them to correct contexts. Showing understanding of the concept of zero. And more. A lot of the descriptions of how she taught him and how obstinately he often refused to do repetitive drills, reminded me of reading books on language experiments with apes. Much of this book is about Pepperberg's struggles in academia: trying to secure jobs, find funding, secure recognition from the scientific community, dealing with frequent moves and marital stress. It was interesting to me how particular she was with words in describing her project when seeking grants or giving lectures. For example, she wanted to be dissociated from the furor that was arising challenging the claims of those who taught apes sign language so she never said Alex learned words or names for things, instead she called them "labels". Also curious was how little passion comes through these pages; she didn't seem to have a very close relationship with Alex, or at least didn't express it. In fact, she mentioned a few times how she tried to keep her distance from him so their relationship would remain a clinical one appropriate for the study. Understandable, but it made reading the book a little cold. Overall, I was very intrigued with the work she did with Alex and wanted to learn more. I'm definitely going to try and find her other book The Alex Studies to read, it seems like that one goes into more depth and this book felt a bit lacking to me. I kept wanting more detail, more explanations, even more anecdotes than she provided.

After finishing the book I went on youtube to find videos of Alex talking, I wanted to hear his voice. I should have done it before I started the book so I could have had his voice in my head when I was reading!

Incidentally, this was the first book I ever read on an e-reader. I'm going to discuss that experience in my next post.

rating: 3/5 ........ 240 pages, 2008

more opinions:
Book Coasters


C.B. James said...

I read a book on Alex, I think it was this one, a few years ago. I followed him in magazine articles for several years before that. I've a small parrot myself and used to subscribe to Birdtalk magazine.

It's always interested me how passionate some people are about the notion that only humans are capable of language. As soon as someone like Alex or Coco (the signing gorilla) comes along they start re-defining language in order to exclude animals. It's not a position I understand.

But it does make for interesting reading.

bermudaonion said...

I remember seeing Alex on TV, so I think I would enjoy this book.

Bookwyrme said...

I was one of the people who'd been following news of Alex for years. Here's the site: which is great for news clippings and videos.

Sadly, it's only updated once in a blue moon.

Bookwyrme said...

Posting the site link because, while Alex is the big star, there are 2 other African Greys being taught the same ideas.