Our book today is Richard Schweid’s repulsive 1999 tour de force, The Cockroach Papers, a slim, viscous natural history of the most hated creature on the planet – or rather, the most hated creatures, since there are dozens of thousands of species of cockroach known to modern science. This wonderful, awful book tells you everything you might ever want to know about these creatures, concentrating mostly on the two main kinds found in the United States but ranging far and wide in search of all-star ickiness from all part of the world – and from all times of the world, since cockroaches are one of the oldest life-forms extant on the planet, pre-dating mankind by over 300 million years, pre-dating the dinosaurs by 150 million years. As Schweid points out over and over in the course of his book (often with a detectable note of involuntary appreciation), cockroaches are “built for survival” – as evidenced by the fact that in ancient fossils from millions of years ago, they look pretty much exactly the same as they do today: evolutionarily speaking, they’re about as effecient and adaptable as they can get.
A big part of those adaptations center around protecting cockroaches from the natural consequences of how instantaneously loathsome they are: they need excellent danger-detectors. Before reading Schweid’s book, I just naturally assumed those detectors were the very long disgusting antennae cockroaches wave suggestively over everything all the time. But no, it turns out the real answer is even more disgusting: the primary sensory organs of the cockroach are the cerci, a pair of feelers located next to the creature’s anus and covered in hundreds of impossibly thin hairs. The cerci are primed to detect the smallest changes in air pressure or current (hence the cockroach’s uncanny ability to be already in motion when you turn on the kitchen light), and they’re wired directly to what passes for the cockroach’s autonomous nervous system – which is why a decapitated cockroach exposed to sudden light will still attempt to scurry away.
Schweid takes his readers through a whole list of revolting details just like these (interspersing them with poignant and often hilarious vignettes from his life and past associations with his infernal little subjects) and anticipates every lurid bit of curiosity we might have. How cockroaches mate, their unholy fecundity, their legendary hardiness (they can live for weeks – months even – without any food, their bodies lined everywhere under their armor plating with a thick layer of nitrogen-rich fatty tissue that can sustain them for long stretches), etc. Schweid even confirms the single thing that can make them even more hateful than they already are: cockroaches are indeed capable of biting – in fact, they’ve been known to venture out in groups at night and nibble on sleeping humans. Their preferred delicacies? The lips and eyelashes of sleeping children. Charming.
Still, even such unholy abominations as these are not beyond the reach of Stockholm Syndrome, and long before his book is over, Schweid is giving the strong impression he would never semi-curl that book and use it as the Hammer of God on an errant cockroach that happened to interrupt his reading time. The picture he paints of peaceful co-existence is almost Edenic:
Normally, a domestic cockroach carries on its life in a world parallel to ours, behind wallpaper, hidden in the cracks of kitchen cabinets, under the refrigerator, or near the toilet where the pipes pass through the bathroom floor. It comes out in the dark to work for its daily bread, to find food, water, and a mate. The instances are few when its path will cross with that of humans, and whole generations may be born, live, and die without ever being seen by a human eye, even though their worlds occupy the same space and they may be only inches apart as they move through their respective wakings and sleepings.
This passage – and all those like it – almost says it: to know all is to forgive all. Against which we might place a quote from one of the greatest movies ever made: the only good bug is a dead bug.