By the Book: Literary menagerie equals good reading

“War Horse” opened recently to rave reviews. A Spielberg movie, a Broadway play, from a book by Michael Morpurgo — eat your hearts out, all you authors out there. I started thinking about other books in which a central character was an animal. There are some good horse books, “Seabiscuit” being the best I’ve read. The courage of the animal and the determination of the trainer were inspirational. “Black Beauty” (1877!) was not only a publishing success but became a strong force in animal cruelty legislation.

Good dog books abound, not necessarily about good dogs. “Cujo” was one of the scariest books ever, with poor Donna trapped in her Pinto with 4-year-old Tad, while the rabid Cujo slathered saliva all over her windshield. Multiple dead bodies, including Tad. Thanks a lot, Stephen.

“The Incredible Journey” had two nifty dogs, Bodger, the old, half-blind bull terrier, and Luath, the young, tireless Lab, traveling 300 miles across the Canadian wilderness to rejoin their family. Alongside them was Tao, the Siamese cat who kept them all in food, killing small animals and birds.

After horses, dogs and cats the search got exotic. Rosy, the elephant in “Water for Elephants,” played a huge role in how the story played out. I wondered how they would film such a complex plot and thought they did a credible job. The book was better than the movie, often the case, but without Rosy there was no story.

Remember “Watership Down”? A bunch of rabbits living in the woods are seeking a new home and unknowingly settle in a rabbit farm, where they’re treated wonderfully but are just being fattened up for the meat market. Their wise leader manages their escape, but there are enough dumb bunnies to keep the story interesting. There’s a final battle with a band of nasty rabbits, sort of a bad hare day, but ingenuity prevails as they free a nasty dog and lead him, ravenous, into the bad guys’ camp.

And talk about community, what about the mixed grill in “Animal Farm,” the super-society where all pigs are supposedly equal but some pigs turn out to be more equal than others. Old McDonald without the music, it’s on every 100 Best List.

OK. We’re down to the sleek otter in “A Ring of Bright Water” and the hawks in “Red Tails in Love,” with sophisticated New Yorkers watching hawks copulating 20 stories up like avian OB/GYNs. A most enjoyable book.

Let’s not forget fish stories, although I doubt Melville would appreciate seeing “Moby-Dick” so categorized. We’re left with the terrifying “Jaws,” and if I were to dream of Cujo one night and Jaws the next I would check into a psychiatric ward. The music made this movie better than the book, but still … (Do you have an aquarium? If a goldfish is pregnant, how do you know when her water breaks?)

We’re down to the most unusual literary creature: Don Marquis’ “Archy,” the philosophizing cockroach who nightly leapt upon the keys of a typewriter and, unable to manage the cap/punctuation shifts, produced poetry, e.g.:

if you get gloomy just
take an hour off and sit
and think how
much better this world
is than hell
of course it wont cheer
you up much if
you expect to go there

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].