(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

In the Preface to Birdscapes, Jeremy Mynott expresses his intention to let readers follow the twisted and indirect path he himself took to reach his conclusions, rather than presenting a streamlined pathpurged of false starts and dead endsin the manner of most studies of this sort. While it is doubtful that he includes all of the nonproductive thought processes he toyed with in writing the book, he certainly includes some of them. Even when it is time to draw conclusions, in the last paragraphs of the last page of the book, Mynott fails to answer the questions that he set out to explorewhy people like birds and which characteristics of birds draw people to them.

Instead of stating broad, general conclusions to these questions, Mynott declares that people can lose themselves (and then find themselves) in a number of activities or interests, from art to travel. He concludes that wondering about birds is one such activityand a good one. Earlier, on the previous page, he explained his feelings with regard to the paucity of precise answers in his study, saying that he learned a great deal in the process of writing the book and he is now “confused in more interesting ways.”

These are appropriate, even refreshing conclusions, especially in light of a secondary expectation Mynott held. He anticipated that he would learn some basic things about human nature in his exploration of human-bird relationships. This may have been the primary purpose for the book, to use human interest in birds to understand humanity. At any rate, he explores both ideas throughout the book, hypothesizing about which characteristics of birds interest and charm humans and why, as well as exploring what these observations and hypotheses might teach people about themselves.

Mynott explores very different attitudes and activities involving birds, ranging from hunting and eating them to watching and listening to them. To Mynott, most human interactions with birds suggest basic human characteristics. Using these suggestions, he explores human nature as an extension of the bird-human interaction. Each chapter begins with a description of one of Mynott’s many bird-watching experiences. The experience exemplifies the focus of the chapter and initiates its discussion. Each chapter considers one or more reasons for loving birds, including their association with a particular memorable experience or favorite landscape. Mynott argues that it is really the total experience or the total landscape that is remembered fondly and that that total context stimulates the love of the birds that were integral parts of the whole.

Mynott posits several other possible reasons that people appreciate birds. Some enjoy the challenge of identifying specific species. Some simply find birds’ construction and coloring beautiful and take pleasure in looking at them. Some appreciate their songs. Some are struck by the wonder of flight. Those humans who wish they could fly may be attracted to birds, though simultaneously jealous of them, for their ability to fly. Mynott is unable or unwilling to pin down a single characteristic of birds that gives them such favor with humankind, and he suggests, from time to time, that combinations of many bird characteristics are responsible for human ornithophilia.

Mynott suggests that each of the reasons for loving birds plays a part in or is parallel to human endeavors and interests that do not involve birds. For example, in the chapter on sound he presents an argument that, while vision is considered to be the most fundamental sense, it may be no more important than hearing. He relates this arugment to birds by pointing out that in some contexts, forests in full leaf for example, bird-watchers must use their hearing more than their vision, finding and identifying birds by their songs and calls rather than by their appearance. He muses that in these situations, the exercise might be better called “bird listening” instead of “bird-watching.” Outside the birding context, Mynott quotes Helen Keller saying that loss of hearing was a greater hardship to her than loss of...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The Guardian, April 18, 2009, p. 8.

The New Yorker 85, no. 10 (April 20, 2009): 113.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette June 28, 2009, p. DD-2.

Science 325, no. 5947 (September 18, 2009): 1501.

Times Higher Education, May 14, 2009, p. 50.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 11, 2009, p. 23.