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Russell Potter – Pyg: The Adventures of Toby, the Learned Pig

January 30, 2013

LibraryThing Early Reviewers1. Pyg: The Adventures of Toby, the Learned Pig by Russell Potter (2011)

Length: 274 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 30 December 2012
Finished: 13 January 2013

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.
Why do I have it? I thought a book narrated by a pig sounded like fun.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 October 2012.

Toby the learned
pig Forest Gumps his way through
Georgian England.

Summary: Pyg is the autobiography of Toby, the world’s first genuine Learned Pig. Toby was born and raised as a prize-winner, but after the fair, he escapes from his destiny in the butcher’s yard with the help of his young human friend, Sam. Together they find their way to the traveling show of Mr. Bisset, who trains Toby to recognize subtle cues and respond by selecting the proper letters, so as they might amaze village fairgoers with Toby’s knowledge. But Mr. Bisset does not realize that Toby is in fact learning to read, again with the help of Sam, and thus begins Toby’s adventures across Britain, studying at Oxford and meeting such great thinkers of the day as Robert Burns and Samuel Wilberforce.

Review: This was a very interesting conceit for a book, and Potter pulls it off remarkably well. I had known of the existence of this kind of sideshow act before I picked up this book – horses that count by stamping, that sort of thing – but I don’t think I realized how detailed the acts got, nor how popular the “sapient pig” was in Britain back in the day. I really enjoyed the fact that this book let Toby speak for himself; because this is a (putative) autobiography, Toby gets to muse on his existence, and what it says about the human (and porcine) condition, in such a way that is both insightful and more genuine-feeling than it would if this were a book about Toby, rather than by him. As I said, Potter manages it really well; it took surprisingly little suspension of disbelief to believe that I was reading a book pieced together one letter at a time by a very intelligent pig. Potter also captures the style of the time very well, with somewhat haphazard capitalizations and italics, that could have been intrusive or obnoxious, but which I thought helped give the book an appropriate period flavor.

“For what was I? A freak of nature? But if I were, might not Sir Isaac Newton, or Galileo, or Shakespeare be similarly regarded as freaks? One model of existence – the more popular, I should say – imagines the young as empty vessels, ready to be filled with the Stuff of Learning, and entirely creatures of such training: your average human scholler was in this case no more, and no less, a product of his schooling than I. But if, instead, there lay within some, but not all, souls a certain indefinable Spark of genius, which required only sufficient Tinder to set the world ablaze, then all such men were Freaks, and there was no more point in trying to produce such fellows through mere Learning than there was in lecturing to Stones to make them capable.” – p. 194

My main complaint about this book is that it sort of ran out of steam about 2/3s of the way through. The early story, about Toby’s escape and education, were very interesting, and the trials of his time on the stage and his struggle to be accepted in a world of men were equally compelling, if a little slower. But after that, the action sort of started to peter out, and there’s not much drama or conflict to sustain the last section of the book. It’s a shame, because while I enjoyed the book as a whole, the ending kind of left me feeling as though I wasn’t entirely sure what the point of the story actually was. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like early 19th-century literature, or stories set in that time (or Charlotte’s Web), or even if you think a book narrated by a pig sounds like fun, then this book should be worth checking out.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Surprisingly, I can’t find any! Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: As the editor of this new edition of Toby’s autobiography, I should like to make a few brief remarks to those readers who may, by chance, take up this volume knowing nothing of the circumstance of its origin or first publication.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2013 2:50 pm

    I’m glad you mentioned Charlotte’s Web because I thought of it as I read your review. This sounds great!

    • February 17, 2013 8:01 pm

      Kathy – The first bit involves Toby growing up at a farm and the young farm boy who takes care of him, whose name I kept forgetting and thinking it was Avery. :)

  2. Maya Panika permalink
    February 4, 2013 10:54 am

    I reviewed it.

  3. February 5, 2013 10:44 pm

    This reminds me a lot of the Freddy the Pig books by…oh dear. Walter Brooks, I want to say? Anyway, it’s funny how many stories there are about intelligent pigs! This sounds like a more heavily historical one, which is an interesting direction to go.

    • February 17, 2013 8:01 pm

      Cheryl – I hadn’t heard of any other intelligent pig books; I’ll have to check them out!

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