The evolution of field 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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