A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
One of the first books I remember owning is a Golden Nature Guide to Mammals by Herbert S. Zim. My family was poor, so buying a book was rare, this one came from a discount store when I was 6. As I look at the familiar cover, light green with a white-tailed deer, I wince at the tears and the missing lower corner. At some point I enclosed the entire cover with sticky, clear plastic vinyl, which probably kept it in better shape than it otherwise would be. Each page has a watercolor of the animal in its habitat on the top half, the bottom is filled with a description and small map in the corner with the range in pink or blue. Sometimes there’s a silhouette of a paw print, which I found quite exciting as a child, as it made the wilderness feel closer and myself better equipped to identify any grizzlies walking through my yard in suburban Cleveland.
Mammals was only one volume of a whole series of Golden Nature Guides, most of which I acquired as I grew up and still use today. Along the way, I expanded into other field guides, including those from other countries. There’s even one from South Africa that I found at an antique show.
Field guides are a modern phenomenon; artist Roger Tory Peterson perfected the form in the 1930’s, when his first one on North American birds exceeded all sales expectations in the midst of the Great Depression. Nowadays there is great variety in formats and mediums, some with photos instead of paintings, some with pages of information for each species, others with a few sentences of main identifying marks. Some, such as Sibley’s, are too bulky to actually carry into the field and should properly be called “desk guides”.
I learned about geography, climate and geology from field guides. Instead of memorizing the imports/exports of a country, and being bored by rows of numbers, I associated maps and data with something positive–animals. The descriptions of things that affect animal populations, usually human activity, would send me off in seeking more info on say, women’s fashion or oil drilling to see why it impacted egrets or buffalo.
While encyclopedias provides an overview of the Big Picture, field guides are detail oriented. Their non-linear format allows the reader to open at random or search specifically and a person can easily become engrossed in comparing pictures and facts or pursuing an endless line of questions. So while they aren’t as absorbing in the same way as a novel, they are enjoyable for their snapshots of fun facts, I seldom come away from a field guide without learning something. Often a whole bunch of somethings. In that way, field guides are like a long table lined with hors d’oeuvres, not as meaty as a meal, but certainly full of tasty tidbits.
Jackie would like to know if others share her feelings for this type of book and if VL readers have their own favorites?
On Monday, Simon will talk about the long-delayed joy of Beverley Nichols.
On Wednesday, we’ll have a Vulpes Random – tbd (EXCITING, no?)
On Friday, Hilary feeds her dreams of actually living in an actual bookshop with Jeremy Mercer’s memoir 'Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co.'