Last year I went to the Brisbane Writers Festival, and attended a panel discussion in which I practically fell in love with a book I’d never heard of before, let alone read: Birds Art Life Death by Kyo Maclear. All it took was for Maclear to talk about the book a bit, and I knew this was something I had to read. And it wasn’t that she was just really good at pitching it – she was just explaining what the book was about, and it seemed to be everything I wanted to read.
Well, I finally got around to reading Birds, and I loved it as much as (or more than?) I had expected to love it. Maybe it could be argued that I was predisposed to like it because I attended that panel discussion, but I don’t think that would have affected it that much. I reckon it would have been impossible for me to read this book and not love it. In the time that I was reading Birds, every time I picked it up (as in physically picked it up to take it to work, bring it home, move it upstairs, etc), I would think, I love this book or some variation of that.
And since it was almost like reading a really eloquent blog, I got through it reasonably quickly – maybe even a little too quickly. Feeling like I was getting to the end too soon, yet at the same time wanting to read and know all of it as soon as possible, I often intentionally left my bookmark in the previous page so that I’d re-read certain things when I picked it up again.
But the book – let’s talk about the actual content of the book.
From what I gather, it’s not entirely fictitious (or not at all?) and is about the author’s introduction to bird-watching / bird appreciation – something affectionately termed “birding” (not sure if this is a widely accepted/recognised term, since I don’t think I’ve heard of it before…) The reason I have question marks on the fictitiousness of the book is because I vaguely remember the panel host asking Maclear if it is a memoir, and she didn’t exactly agree.
Well, anyway, the tagline is that it’s a “field guide to the small and significant”; and through the retelling of her year of birding, Maclear also talks about her parents, her own family, her childhood, and her life as a writer. Of course, she writes primarily about birds and bird-watching and the musician who made her a birder.
Early on in the book, she includes this snippet from the musician (who is always referred to as “the musician” in the book, but who is really “Jack Breakfast”, which may or may not be his real name…?)
In some respects, I feel like this is a book that would be beneficial to any struggling and/or insecure writer/artist (but maybe not if you strongly dislike birds). I don’t doubt, however, that people who are neutral or indifferent to birds could learn to actually appreciate birds by reading this book.
As for myself, I’ve been fascinated with and interested in birds ever since I was a kid, so nothing really changed for me there. But maybe what I have gained is a heightened curiosity and consciousness/awareness in relation to common birds. Maclear lives in Toronto, and the majority of her birding takes place there, within the city. As such, there isn’t an abundance of rare and typically beautiful birds to be found, but there are still discoveries and wonder and a different kind of beauty.
I know I usually type out quotes from books for my blog posts, but there were so many passages from Birds that I wanted to flag, highlight and keep that it would have really impeded my reading of the book to have stopped and written them all down. Instead, I took photos of various parts that really resonated with me.
I also like how the chapters of the book correspond to a month and to a particular theme. For example, the above snapshot was from the June-July chapter (winter in Toronto is apparently not a great time for bird activity, so the two months are combined), and the theme (of course) was “lulls” – both peaceful and terrifying lulls. If I really wanted to, and I had the time, I think I would write a post for each chapter. Birds is a thinking and reflecting sort of book, and, as such, is full of good blogging/writing prompts. Don’t be surprised if I revisit thoughts from this book at a random time in the future.
For anyone interested, Jack Breakfast does have a website (he is a real person) on which you can view various bird photographs that he has taken: http://www.smallbirdsongs.com/