Monday, December 4, 2023

In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders and Their Guides by Thomas R. Dunlap

The evolution of field guides
I’m a birder, and I also enjoy books about the history of books. So a book about bird books? Right up my alley. Imagine my joy when discovering Thomas R. Dunlap’s 2011 book In the Field, Among the Feathered, which covers both areas of interest. In this book, Dunlap provides a cultural history of birding in the United States, as shown through the proliferation and refinement of birders’ field guides. This history begins in the late 19th century with the first guides created for recreational birders (non-ornithologists) and proceeds to the abundance of bird books we’re faced with today. Along the way, Dunlap examines the publications of major players in the field guide industry, including the Peterson, Golden Books, Sibley, National Geographic, and American Bird Conservancy guides.

This book is written in a very academic style. That’s not to say it’s difficult to read, or that you need a PhD to understand it. It just means that Dunlap, a history professor, is constantly pushing his theses in the reader’s face, as academia requires. Following the Industrial Revolution, birding was a way for urban dwellers to experience the contact with nature that was missing from their lives. As America became more environmentally conscious, ecology and conservation became inextricably entwined with the practice of birding, as is reflected in the field guides. These points are repeated several times in each chapter, to remind you that everything he’s talking about is in support of these assertions. Dunlap is always looking for the cultural studies aspect of every development in the history of birding. How does this field guide or this birding trend reflect upon American society as a whole? Those sorts of arguments are necessary in a history textbook, but not necessarily of interest to those who are just interested in birding and birds.

The book contains quite a few illustrations, all of them reproductions of pages from bird guides, including 12 pages in color. Even so, both the birder and the book lover in me would have liked twice as many images. Dunlap spends a lot of time verbally describing the different layouts and features of each field guide, but the pictures are so much more effective at indicating what information was provided by each guide and how it was presented. In some cases, this is like an art history textbook in that Dunlap shows you a photo and then proceeds to describe to you what’s in that photo, as if you couldn’t see it for yourself. The images he does present are informatively captioned. More reproductions treated in this way and less textual description would have been a plus.

I did enjoy the birding history in this book. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a time when birders only had one or two field guides to choose from, and none of them particularly user-friendly, but that was the case before Roger Tory Peterson came along and basically invented the form of the field guide as we know it today. Dunlap includes some interesting biographical information on Peterson and the other bird-guide writers discussed in the book, as well as behind-the-scenes stories of the publication histories of their guides. It is pretty amazing how the activity of birding has grown exponentially since Peterson’s first guide. Dunlap does a good job of chronicling the why and how of that bird-book explosion.

I’ve seen a few other books about the history of birding advertised in recent years, but Dunlap’s focus on field guides is unique. If, like me, you enjoy bird books just about as much as you enjoy the real-life birds themselves, then this is the history for you.
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Friday, December 1, 2023

Writing (Ancient Peoples and Places series) by David Diringer

Broad, shallow overview of ancient scripts
In 1957, the London publisher Thames & Hudson began publishing a series of books on archaeology entitled Ancient Peoples and Places, which eventually grew to 113 volumes. In most cases, each book synthesizes the current research on a particular region or ancient civilization. The 25th book in the series, however, was the first volume to break that rule by focusing instead on the worldwide ancient history of a particular cultural phenomenon: Writing. That book entitled Writing, written by David Diringer, was first published in 1962.

Diringer starts by explaining the distinctions between pictographic, ideographic, transitional, phonetic or syllabic, and alphabetic forms of writing. He then goes on to examine individual scripts of different regions of the world and their chronological development. He starts by discussing the first pictographic symbols of prehistoric peoples. He then examines ancient writing styles of the Near East, including cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Hittite hieroglyphics, and the Minoan or Cretan scripts Linear A and B. This is followed by a chapter on East Asian scripts, which only covers Chinese and Japanese, with a brief addendum on Easter Island writing. Then follows a chapter on the pre-Colombian writing of the Maya and Aztecs. Not surprisingly, the most coverage is reserved for the ancient languages that were precursors to our own alphabet, which arose out of Semitic scripts that precursed the Phoenician, Greek, and finally Latin alphabets. Multiple side trips are taken into other written languages, such as Aramaic, Arabic, and Indian scripts. The book is illustrated with many transcriptions of ancient writing, photographs of inscribed artifacts, and phonetic and alphabetic tables of the languages covered.

The books in the Ancient People and Places series are meant to be concise introductory texts for students and general readers. They typically run about 200 pages, with many illustrations and charts, plus another 60 pages of photographs. In a book of that size, Diringer can’t provide a comprehensive history of every ancient script, so he had to make choices about what to feature and what to omit. Nevertheless, he covers a surprisingly large number and broad variety of languages here. What you get in this book is a little bit of knowledge about a lot of different scripts and their cultures. Diringer provides enough information to pique one’s interest, so the reader can seek out further information on specific languages in more specialized texts.

I read the first edition of this book from 1962. At that time, the Minoan script Linear B had just been deciphered, and the Mayan glyphs had not been completely deciphered. Soviet scholar Yuri Knozorov would put the finishing touches on cracking that code a few years later. I’m sure a lot of other discoveries have been made regarding ancient scripts in the past 60 years. Nevertheless, as emphasized before, this is a basic introduction to the field, and much of the fundamentals have survived the test of time. There’s not enough space here for Diringer to teach you how to read any of these scripts anyway, so if you require that level of detail and accuracy, look for a more advanced text. As a general overview, I enjoyed this book. It provides a clear outline of the development of alphabets over millennia, and it brought to my attention a few ancient civilizations and their scripts with which I was unfamiliar. I have been pleased with the volumes of the Ancient Peoples and Places Series that I have seen thus far, and I look forward to reading more of them.
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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

My brother the scoundrel
The Master of Ballantrae
, published in 1889, is a historical novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. The story begins in Scotland with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie rebelled against King George II. At the estate of Durrisdeer in Scotland lives Lord Durie and his two sons. Not knowing which side will triumph in the rebellion, the family decides to cover both bases. It is determined by the toss of a coin that the elder son James, called the Master of Ballantrae and the rightful heir of Durrisdeer, will go off to fight on the side of the rebels, while the younger son Henry will remain at home to support the incumbent king. Little does the family realize that this coin toss will spark a vicious quarrel over the possession of the family estate.

Film adaptations of The Master of Ballantrae seem to emphasize swashbuckling adventure, but there really aren’t a lot of swords clashing or guns blazing in this book. The Master of Ballantrae has more in common with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights than it does with The Three Musketeers or Rob Roy. Wuthering Heights is a book about a dysfunctional family who live in an isolated estate on the moors of Northern England. Bearing lifelong grudges, the family members devote themselves to making each other’s lives miserable, sometimes in darkly comic ways. Life at Durrisdeer is not far off from that. The plot of The Master of Ballantrae revolves around the bitter rivalry between the two brothers, each obsessed with getting the upper hand over the other. James and Henry each takes pleasure in the misfortune, destitution, or humiliation of his sibling.

Unlike the denizens of Wuthering Heights, however, the characters in The Master of Ballantrae do not stay confined to their manor. This story runs farther afield, with chapters taking place in Paris, India, and the United States—mostly in the woods of upstate New York, home to savage Natives. This globetrotting aspect of the book, coupled with flashbacks of the Master’s wartime escapades, qualify this book as an adventure novel, but by no mean a conventional one.

Stevenson’s books remind me of Joseph Conrad. Both authors write adventure novels that transcend genre fiction to achieve the heights of fine literature, never settling for a formulaic adventure narrative but instead pushing the envelope to defy readers’ expectations. Both tell stories set in exotic locales, or tales of sea travel, painted with loads of vivid local color. The difference between the two is that Conrad’s prose is often confusing, obscure, tedious, and pretentious, whereas Stevenson’s prose is smoothly flowing, clear, lively, and mellifluous. Stevenson is one of the English language’s consummate storytellers. It’s no wonder that he was revered by so many writers of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

About the only thing I don’t like about Stevenson’s writing is that he assumes a good deal of knowledge of Scottish history and politics on the part of the reader. Not having that knowledge myself, I usually feel like I’m not quite getting everything that he’s saying. There are a couple points in The Master of Ballantrae where I wasn’t quite sure of the political or legal ramifications of James or Henry’s strategy. But for those few instances, however, this novel remains remarkably fresh, accessible, and entertaining over a century after it was published. Sir Walter Scott, another author of Scottish historical adventures, wrote prose that reads as if it were written 200 years ago. Stevenson’s writing, on the other hand, reads as if it might have been penned last week. The Master of Ballantrae is a work of classic, timeless storytelling that can still move, amuse, and excite readers of the 21st century.  
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Monday, November 27, 2023

John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes

The artist as immigrant entrepreneur in the early republic
American author Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He has subsequently written a few more books on the Cold War, the arms race, nuclear energy, and nuclear terrorism, thus carving out a niche for himself in that area. In 2004, however, Rhodes played against type by publishing a biography of John James Audubon (1785–1851), the French-American artist and ornithologist whose paintings of American birds comprise what may be the greatest coffee-table book ever published, The Birds of America. In his ambitious biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American, Rhodes provides a complete life and times that not only recounts the fascinating events of this great artist’s life but also reveals much about American society and westward expansion during Audubon’s lifetime.

I had previously read William Souder’s biography of Audubon, Under a Wild Sky, which was also published in 2004. Souder concentrates more on Audubon as a naturalist, and places much emphasis on the making of The Birds of America book. Rhodes’s book is more of a full cradle-to-grave biography that leaves no stone unturned. All periods of Audubon’s life, from birth to death, are treated with more or less equal attention. Rhodes clearly wants to write the definitive biography of Audubon and is therefore hesitant to leave anything out. As a result, Audubon’s early business ventures and extensive travel itineraries are covered in great detail, whether those ventures were fruitful or not. The text is also peppered with plenty of mini-biographies of every brother-in-law, cousin, or casual acquaintance. This comprehensive omit-nothing treatment reminds me of Ron Chernow’s biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. The advantage is you learn a lot, but a compelling narrative can sometimes get bogged down in too much encyclopedic detail.

Much discussion is devoted to Audubon’s marriage. The artist was separated from his wife, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, for years as he finished and promoted The Birds of America in Europe while she remained in America. Lucy earned a living as a teacher and raised their children, often facing financial hardship, while Audubon pursued his dream project in the hopes of future financial security. Souder makes Audubon out to be the villain in that story, a man who basically neglected his wife and kids. Rhodes, on the other hand, paints Audubon as a lonely lover constantly begging his wife to join him in Europe, only to be inexplicably refused again and again. Either way, I got more marital drama than I really wanted. Both Souder and Rhodes mine the couple’s prolific correspondence to provide blow-by-blow accounts of this transatlantic marital tug of war, when really some more concise summarization would have sufficed.

Rhodes’s biography of Audubon is not just for bird lovers. (In fact, bird lovers might prefer Souder’s book). As the subtitle indicates, this book will also appeal to readers of American history for the light it sheds on the Early Republic and the antebellum South. Rhodes doesn’t so much emphasize Audubon the artist or the ornithologist but rather Audubon the entrepreneur. Like many immigrants, Audubon came to America for a better life but found more struggle than manna from heaven. To pursue his American dream, Audubon had to navigate the frequently unstable and precarious economic climate of a young nation with growing pains. In John James Audubon, Rhodes delivers almost a dual biography of the man and the nation growing up together. Though the narrative sometimes gets dry at times, it’s an informative history lesson.  
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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz

OCD: The Novel
Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) is widely considered one of Poland’s greatest modern writers. His novel Cosmos was published in 1965. It won the Prix International (International Prize for Literature) in 1967. I read the 2005 translation by Danuta Borchardt, who did a very fine job of interpreting Gombrowicz’s avant-garde prose into lively, smooth-flowing English.

The narrator of Cosmos, also named Witold, and his friend Fuks are scholars of some sort. They leave Warsaw for a sojourn in Zakopane, a Polish vacation destination, where they hope to relax, study, and write. In a sort of B&B arrangement, they take up lodging with a family in their country home. As they enter the grounds of their new home, the pair discover a dead sparrow hanging from a string. Who would do such a thing? This is seen as a bad omen and immediately sparks paranoia in the two young men. After taking up residence in the household, Witold and Fuks notice other possible “signs” of what they perceive to be some intelligent design concealing a message or a warning. These signs could be as esoteric as water spots on a ceiling that form the shape of an arrow, an arrow that the two can’t resist following until it leads them to other clues, real or imagined, to this mysterious puzzle. Katasia, a member of their host family, has a disfigured lip that Witold fixates on and inexplicably becomes obsessed with until he sees the form of this woman’s mouth just about everywhere he looks. Any repetition of visual or audial cues, such as two straight lines, two pieces of string, or two banging noises, are interpreted by Witold and Fuks as part of a sinister pattern. The pair are compelled to decipher this secret code that may only exist in their paranoid minds.

Not being a psychologist, I don’t know the textbook definition of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but my amateur diagnosis would be that these two are suffering from an extreme form of that behavioral malady. Cosmos is quite comic in its initial chapters, as the lengths to which Witold and Fuks obsess over every detail of their surroundings is absurd, ridiculous, and delusional. The strange humor and Gombrowicz’s creative use of language reminded me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. The book takes a darker turn at about the midway point, however, as Witold’s obsessions become sexual in nature. His attraction to one of his housemates is as obsessive as his compulsion to establish patterns where there are none. One not only fears for his sanity but for the safety of those around him.

Written from the point of view of Witold, the prose reflects his obsessive-compulsive nature. The text is riddled with the constant repetition of key words and phrases, basically all the “signs” over which Witold is obsessing. Usually I don’t care much for modernist writers who play a lot of word games, but there’s a method to Gombrowicz’s madness that I appreciated and enjoyed. His style is not just verbal masturbation but actually enhances the narrative rather than obscures it. The best thing about this novel is that it is so unpredictable. The plot could just as easily end in violence as in comedy, and the reader can never be sure if the grand design that Witold and Fuks are pursuing is real or imagined. With so many options on the table, I was disappointed with the ending, which felt like a weak resolution to a fascinating novel. Overall, however, I found Cosmos to be a very thought-provoking and satisfyingly original work of literature.
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Monday, November 20, 2023

Mexico (Ancient Peoples and Places series) by Michael D. Coe

Great concise overview of everyone northwest of the Maya
In 1957, the London publisher Thames & Hudson began publishing a series of books on archaeology entitled Ancient Peoples and Places. These books were republished in America by Frederick A. Praeger. In most cases, each book synthesized the current research on a particular region or ancient civilization. These books are authoritative enough to perhaps be used in undergraduate courses but accessible enough to educate general readers. The series eventually included at least 112 volumes. Some of these books are still in print and have been updated over the years.

Mexico, the 29th book in the Ancient Peoples and Places series, was first published in 1962 and is now in its eighth edition. It was written by Michael D. Coe, a distinguished archaeologist of pre-Colombian Mexico and Mesoamerica. Of the major scholars of Mexico’s ancient peoples, Coe has perhaps done the most to educate non-academics by writing books accessible to the general public, such as his popular 1992 book Breaking the Maya Code, which won a National Book Award. The reader won’t find any Maya here, however. Coe explains that the Maya need their own book in the series, which he wrote and published a few years later. Here Coe makes a cultural distinction between Mesoamerica, home of the Maya, and Mexico proper, being everything northwest of the Yucatán. Much of the ancient history presented here centers around the Valley of Mexico, location of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (site of modern Mexico City).

Later editions of this book are subtitled From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, but the book is really a broad overview of all the ancient cultures that inhabited Mexico from the first humans who walked down from the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago to the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish conquistadores in 1521. The Olmecs and the Aztecs only get one chapter each. (They both later got their own books in the Ancient Peoples and Places series.) The absence of the Maya and the brevity with which the Olmecs and Aztecs are treated may be perceived by some as a detriment to the book, but I actually see it as a strength. One can find hundreds of books on those three civilizations, while the rest of Mexico’s ancient peoples go ignored or neglected. Here Coe provides a concise but comprehensive overview that gives everyone their due consideration. Centuries before the rise of the Aztecs, Native Mexican peoples had already left monumental testaments to their great civilizations, such as the metropolis of Teotihuacán northeast of Mexico City, Monte Albán in Oaxaca, and El Tajín in Veracruz. An archaeologically curious traveler wandering around Mexico today will hear all about the ancient histories of the Toltec, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Chichimec peoples, and many more. It is hard to grasp the broader picture of where and when these different cultures lived, and how they interacted and influenced one another. This book provides a clear key to how they all fit together geographically, chronologically, and culturally.

The content is a combination of historical synopses and mini-field reports of what was found at particular archaeological digs. Although this is an introductory text, Coe doesn’t dumb down the subject matter. The reader is expected to quickly grasp archaeological terminology, for example the official designations for specific Ice Age periods, pottery cultures, or styles of spear points. The many photographs, illustrations, charts, and maps are helpful. I’m not an archaeologist, just a layman and tourist, but I have read much on Mexican history, and I still learned a lot of fascinating facts from this book. If this is an indication of the quality one can expect from the Ancient Peoples and Places series, then I look forward to reading many more of these books.
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Friday, November 17, 2023

What Not: A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay

Intelligence-based eugenics in a future Britain
English author Rose Macaulay wrote her novel What Not during World War I, and it was published in 1918. The story is set in the near future following the end of the war. Of course, at the time of writing, no one knew when the war was going to end. This near future is far enough along to allow for flying cars and buses. Such mentions of future technology, however, don’t factor much into the story. The primary focus of the novel is a government-established program of eugenics and the political and popular reaction to it.

The Ministry of Brains, headquartered in London, regulates the intellectual development of every citizen in Britain. The government has determined that the best way to avoid another war is to elevate the intelligence of the populace. (That doesn’t seem logical to me, since I think greed and arrogance would be bigger factors to worry about than stupidity, but that’s Macaulay’s premise.) Each individual is given a grade for their mental acuity. A1 for the brainy, for example; C3 for the dense. In order to encourage the birth of more intelligent children, men and women are only allowed to marry partners who have a brain rating within a prescribed close proximity to their own. Some individuals with a history of mental deficiency in their families are forbidden from marrying at all. To discourage the disregarding of these laws, parents with stupid babies are taxed for their dumb offspring, while those with smart babies receive benefits. The Ministry of Brains also administers a system of Mind Training Courses, designed to raise the intelligence and mental efficiency of even the lowest rated brains. The government has made these courses mandatory, unless a citizen is able to obtain an exemption, usually given in cases of mental incompetence.

What Not isn’t so much about the science, philosophy, or morality of this eugenics program. This isn’t a science fiction novel like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s more about the public’s reaction to the program, as explored through debates between the characters. The story focuses primarily on four civil servants who work for the Ministry of Brains. They spend their weekends in a rural town outside of London called Little Chantreys, where we are introduced to a confusing array of what seems like dozens of minor characters. Most of the small-town residents are conservative in nature and object to the new-fangled ways of the government’s Brains program, while the employees of the Ministry are duty-bound to defend their department and its policies.

The purpose of all this is social satire, at least for the first half of the book. Every sentence of Macaulay’s prose is dripping with sardonic humor of a peculiarly British nature. She indiscriminately makes fun of the rich, the poor, the smart, the stupid, Christians, Atheists, government, clergy, and labor alike. Since so much of the satire is directed specifically towards British society, the jokes don’t always connect with the American reader. About the halfway point, the novel takes a more serious turn as it focuses more emphatically on a love story between a man and a woman forbidden by government policy to marry. This love story is a cut above the typical romance one finds in century-old English literature. In fact, the book’s romance is more successfully compelling than its humor is successfully funny.

In the end, Macaulay doesn’t really have anything profound to say about the subject of eugenics, but one can see how the intelligence policies of the Ministry of Brains could be a symbol of encroachments upon civil liberties in general. Macaulay would have certainly witnessed plenty of such encroachments during the Great War. Her viewpoint as expressed here leans to the side of liberalism. Macaulay never seems to take her subject too seriously, however, so why should the reader? It all just feels like an excuse to tell a love story, and not a bad one at that.

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