Reader Review: The Avant-Garde Marine Aquarist

Paul B at his recent book release party

Paul B at his recent book release party

Special thanks to Patrick Sugent for taking the time to write and submit the following review of Paul “Paul B” Baldassano’s The Avant-Garde Marine Aquarist: A 60-Year History of Fishkeeping. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

“I first came across The Avant-Garde Marine Aquarist in an online forum which Paul Baldassano frequents. I gave the book a read not really quite sure what to expect. You see, I knew Paul has a great deal of saltwater knowledge as well as a witty style in online forums, but I also know that he is on a very different level than me in terms of saltwater aquarium experience. He’s got a tank that is going on 45 years old, and I have a tank that is going on two years old, slightly less old than my twin children. He’s also a big DIY (Do-It-Yourself) person when it comes to saltwater aquariums, and I once hired a professional electrician to change a lightbulb (a sad but true story).

So, I thought there was a lot of room for this to be a book that was really beyond my grasp and understanding and just generally over my head with lots of discussion about history I don’t know about, devices I don’t understand, and saltwater theory I can’t follow. Fortunately, that turned out not to be remotely true.

Paul uses his engaging ability to tell a good story to get past all of those barriers. He goes over complex history and technical material like he’s writing a funny children’s book. The stories serve to both entertain and make us laugh, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to convey very difficult concepts in a simple, understandable format that teaches one the concepts behind his thinking without it even being obvious he’s doing just that.

For example, when Paul is telling the story regarding the history of copper dosing, we find out not only interesting historical facts, like this used to be done by putting pennies in the tank on their side, but we also find out that the method for determining proper dosage involved checking for a dead fish—a dead fish either means too many copper pennies (if no parasites) or two few copper pennies (if a bunch of parasites). So, we get taught history of copper treatment, why copper treatment matters, and a really funny story all at the same time! That’s pretty much Paul’s writing style throughout the book.

Personally, I most liked Paul’s section on the history of saltwater caretaking as viewed through his experience. I have very little knowledge of how things were done at the dawn of the hobby and it was highly interesting to learn.

The central part of Paul’s book discusses issues such as how to buy and keep healthy fish, healthy water, and some facts and observations about fish biology. One of the things that makes this section interesting is that much of it is from the point of view of his extensive observation and experience. So, we don’t just get dry, factual information, but we get detailed background of what he has observed and what conclusions it has lead him to, once again in a highly engaging, educational way.

Some of his observations are even controversial within the hobby. For example, his opinions on fish immunity and its implications for saltwater caretaking seem highly logical and well thought out, but run counter to much of the common wisdom in today’s hobby. Naturally, Paul always gets to play the trump card that his philosophy has only worked for nearly 45 years in any debate on whether he is right or wrong. Not many people can claim that proven track record.

Paul’s practical advice on how he runs his tanks is also surprisingly useful to me. I say surprisingly because, as mentioned, Paul is a very different person than me. He has immense Do-It-Yourself skills while I have none, and he applies those in a highly research-oriented fashion to running his tank. Many of the things he suggests doing are just flat out beyond what I am willing and able to do.

Yet, despite the fact that his expertise is beyond mine, his ability to explain why what he is doing works is highly educational and teaches me a lot about saltwater aquarium keeping. So, even if I’m not using exactly the DIY tools he employs, I am learning techniques that allow me to improve my tank. And, as usual, he does all of this with great humor and straightforward language that is both engaging and informative.

In conclusion, this book is absolutely a great read for anyone interested in the saltwater hobby. I don’t expect that many of us are capable of keeping a tank like Paul’s, but I suspect that almost all of us can learn a great deal from the book, improve our own saltwater aquariums, and be highly entertained and informed along the way.”

– Patrick Sugent

[Left to right] Paul's daughter (Jodi Lu Johnson) and grandchild, friend Richard Natole, Paul B, and wife at the book signing party.

[Left to right] Paul’s daughter (Jodi Lu Johnson) and grandchild, friend Richard Natole, Paul B, and wife at the book release party

Editor’s note: Paul’s wife, Dale, and daughter, Jodi Lu Johnson (author of the foreword in The Avant-Garde Marine Aquarist and coiner of the book’s title), recently threw a book-release party for Paul and 40 of their closest friends. CC and I regret we couldn’t make the trip to New York to attend because word has it the event was tremendous fun for all!

Photo credit: Paul Baldassano


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. I’m not quite as old as Paul and we can’t buy his book in the UK However I know Paul from the forum.of which you speak and have to say I share many of his views esp on feeding and DIY. I make my own foods and have been doing so for around 25 years. I also do a fair amount of DIY. Paul is an electrician am a carpenter retired but you never really retire just perhaps slow down a little. When you get involved with DIY in this hobby design and build suff yourself it gives you a greater understanding of how everything works. Not content with just building something but often making things better than the big players produce. Back in the day equipment was basic and not so good so we built our own gear like skimmers and reactors out of all manner of things. Necessity was the mother of invention but I never did get round to building my own supper model unless you call a turbo skimmer one.

  2. Les, you can’t get my book in the UK? I am Agast! I am beside myself. (I am over here now but a little while ago I was over there) Just yesterday I saw Paul McCartney discussing the book with Ringo. I think he got it as an E Book which I think goes all over the world, even to Bayone New Jersey and Piccadilly Square. But Les, you really don’t need my book as you are as experienced as I am and can keep fish long enough to die of old age or at least get Medacare (in the US anyway I am not sure what you get in the UK) I just read the book again to see if I still agree with all of it, and to my surprise, I am. Luckily I have a bad memory so whenever I read it, I learn something.

  3. Hi Paul and thanks for the reply.
    Yeah i guess I will have to interwebe thing it to get your book but like you am old school and like the feel of paper. I am sure there is much I can learn from your book if only how to date supper models. It is true my fish live long healthy lives and although I tell people why they tend to think am nuts or just lucky. In truth I am all three the other you know about yourself. Whatever the reason for my fish living long and enjoying a full sex life it can’t be anything to do how I keep and look after my fish that is just a crazy notion right?

  4. Jeremy Gosnell says

    I just finished ready Paul’s book the other day. I thoroughly enjoyed it. While I don’t do things in my personal aquariums, or recommend to others, the exact nature of Paul’s approach, I enjoyed reading something that wasn’t carbon copy, cookie cutter what everyone in the hobby speaks and thinks. Paul is very out of the box, not just in how he manages marine aquariums, but in how he talks about them. He’s a very intelligent man, and it’s nice to have his 45 years of experience accumulated in one book. I would caution this book for beginning aquarists. It’s vital to lay a strong foundation of reef aquarium keeping. This means using quarantine tanks, hopital tanks, follow a regimented protocol of water chemistry management, etc. Paul’s laissez faire approach to reef-keeping could perhaps show established aquarists where they can save time and money by tweaking their methodology, but also could encourage new aquarists to be lazy. Fish immunity is a hot topic, and one that has been researched with conflicting opinions from experts. I don’t think Paul is exceptionally right, or exceptionally wrong in his views; but I do feel (especially for new aquarists) airing on the side of caution is a good approach. My only real concern with Paul’s suggestions, is that adding parasite infected fish, or natural sea-water to a tank, in hopes (or belief) that it will strengthen fish immunity is a good approach. Paul mentions he’s done this for 45 years, although anyone who has been through a battle with a persistant parasite, would likely feel such an approach is baiting disaster and placing your animals (and wallet) at great risk. It’s quite possible for someone to have copious amounts of experience keeping reefs, and never encounter a powerful and persistant parasite. In addition, Paul’s luck with keeping infected fish and not having a total tank wipeout, could be attributed to other elements, beyond fish immunity. Paul mentions in his book that he’s been a constant ozone user, and that alone is known to reduce parasite numbers in aquarium water and aid in not spreading parasites. It’s a great read, but it’s important for aquarists to have a strong foundation of reef-keeping before opening this book and remembering that the risk of parasites, water chemistry failure and other aquatic tragedies is real and not always so easily avoidable.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Thanks for sharing these insights, Jeremy! I think they’ll help potential readers put Paul’s unique approach into perspective.

  5. Jeremy is correct which is the reason I caution new aquarists all through the book and if they use some of my methods, they have to read it thoroughly and not just to throw fish into a tank without quarantining. There is much more to it than that and all the procedures must be followed to avoid disaster. It is not meant to be a book for beginners which is why I didn’t target beginners on the cover or in the book. Much of the book deals with how things came about in the hobby and how I came about my theories, none of which I acquired through the internet because, when I started, there was no such thing. I got my experience through my own investigation, first hand, much of it by spending time with the creatures in the sea over many years. None of it is from rumors or re-hashed information and in the many places where I was not quite sure of a fact, I mention that I am guessing. The book is titled “The Avant-Garde Marine Aquarist” for a reason. This is the definition of Avant-Garde :
    “the advance group in any field, especially in the visual, literary, or musical arts, whose works are characterized chiefly by unorthodox, daring and experimental methods”

  6. Again I find myself not only mirroring how Paul found things out for himself apart from the diving which I have only managed a few times but through observation and trial and error. I had a few good friends who I used to compare and experiment with this is how I found the benefits of using an Oxydator in my tanks. Others were making my own foods and adding vitamins and fish oils. Others include the DIY aspects those were early pioneering days exciting days results of which we shared. Am going to see if I can get a paper book of Paul Sent from the US as I much prefer old school. A book never crashes and will always be there. Cheers Paul keep them coming.

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