Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience
Princeton University Press, 2009
384 pp., $29.95
Humans, Nature, and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens
Yale University Press, 2008
240 pp., $40.00
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds
Princeton University Press, 2009
656 pp., $35.00
Reviewed by John Wilson
Books for Bird-Brains
On the back flap of Birdscapes, there is a brief description of the author: "Jeremy Mynott has been watching, listening to, and thinking about birds—and birders—for much of his life. He is the former chief executive of Cambridge University Press." Above this bio line is a photo of the author "in the field," in his birding gear. He stands very still, slightly obscured from our view, like a bird in the bush. His face is shadowed by his hat and further hidden by a white beard, Victorian in its amplitude.
Even without the exceptional skills of Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft—two of the many literary figures who make an appearance in the course of this immensely wide-ranging book—we can infer a good deal about the book from the author's description and his photo. Clearly this will be the work of a man who is both exceptionally learned and unusually well-connected. It is also a labor of love. The photo suggests a certain species of British intellectual, rather mannered, intensely self-aware, with an arch sense of humor.
If you love birds and love books, you will find much to enjoy in this particular book about birds. It is organized around questions that Mynott has pondered in the course of a lifetime, and one question quickly leads to another, with each set of questions taking off from a particular occasion ("Volga Delta, 25 May 2007," one chapter begins). Thinking about the emphasis on "listing" birds prompts Mynott to pause and consider the nature and appeal of lists more broadly. Thinking about the difference between identifying birds by sight and by sound leads him to reflect on cultural hierarchies of the senses (sight is dominant in the modern West), on the relationship between birdsong and music, and much more. He pursues these questions with great élan while dispensing wonderful tidbits that may be only tangentially related to the subject at hand. The abundant illustrations are pertinent and often witty.
Mynott will not be to every reader's taste. His investigations can be labored. Open the book at random and you are likely to encounter pretty quickly a sentence resembling these from page 82: "I allow myself to wonder a bit about my motivation here, as I peer through a swampy thicket for a glimpse of golden treasure. Do I really want to see a prothonotary or do I just want to find my 150th bird for Central Park?" And Mynott is the sort of writer who tells us what he is going to do and then tells us what he has been doing, repeatedly. Still, these are minor irritants in a book that you might very well want to include when you pack for your summer getaway.
For your birding shelf at home, there's a handsome volume entitled Humans, Nature, and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens, by Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy. The 69 plates in this book prompt reflection on how we see the natural world, how we represent what we see, and what the one has to do with the other, and in this way it nicely complements Birdscapes, where Mynott also takes up these themes. (A paperback edition of Humans, Nature, and Birds is scheduled for November.) Also for home use (we keep a copy handy): The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds. Unlike many large reference books, which are astonishingly ill-constructed, this paperback, heavy with photo illustrations, is well-bound and reader-friendly, inviting for browsing as well as for answering specific questions.
Let Mynott have the last word, in a characteristic footnote: "NASA incorporated a snatch of birdsong in the Golden Disk on Voyager 1 and 2, giving our 'Greetings to the Universe.' The bird calls selected are rather disappointing, to be honest, being mainly background to elephant and hyena cries, but the thought was nice."
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.