I love reading and I love books. To not finish a book that I have started is not something I enjoy doing and in fact comes near to sacrilege, but on a very small number of occasions I have done that very thing. The other day I was almost exactly half-way through reading a book on birds (I don’t want to insult anyone so I will not be naming this book or the author), when I had the sickly epiphany that I was not getting an ounce of enjoyment out of reading this book, nor was anything in it of interest to me and in fact I was finding it a chore to read. A chore! That is never a good sign, so I quite simply stopped reading, put the book down and I will now never read it again.
What was so wrong with this book? It was actually quite competently written and it had a reasonably solid core concept to it, it was far from offensive and the author seemed like a genuinely nice person who genuinely cared about what he was writing about. I am quite confident that the majority of people who read this book will actually quite like it and maybe even recommend it to a friend. The issue is that I am a cynical sod who has become increasingly disenfranchised with the current nature-writing publishing scene.
Firstly, there is a lot of filler. Although the core conceit of the book is solid, it is unfortunately also a conceit that would have made a brilliant magazine article, but which makes for a poor book. Because this central idea is essentially something that could be quite well covered in around 2000 words, this book is almost 75% filler. This filler consists largely of tangents about birds and subjects quite unrelated to the main theme. These tangents, although fairly well written, are extremely forgettable, pointless and worst of all, boring. This book could be summed up with the line: ‘Here’s some writing about some birds wot some guy you don’t know saw one time’.
This central conceit of the book is also somewhat hackneyed and overly familiar by now. It is along the same lines of other nature books where the author takes a particular group of organisms defined by some topic and then spends exactly a year trying to see all of those organisms around the UK. It’s been done by Charlie Elder in his books ‘While Flocks Last’ and ‘Few and Far Between’, it’s been done by Patrick Barkham in his ‘The Butterfly Isles’ and it’s been done by Marianne Taylor with her book ‘Dragonflight’ as well as by several others.
It’s a fine formula; it allows the scope of the book to be narrowed down in order to appeal to a more particular readership and the time-restraint of a year adds a level of tension, challenge and interest to the narrative. The problem here is that all the best ideas in this vein had already been taken, so the author was left to flounder with one that would have been best as a feature article in BBC Wildlife magazine.
Apart from having somewhat better concepts to them, these other books I mentioned also had an element that this book totally lacks: a point. I don’t actually mind a book that is essentially just a guy I don’t know writing about some wildlife he saw, as long as it actually has a point to make, a purpose beyond just describing some animals with fancy language. Nature-writing needs to be either important or interesting or both; this is because you are writing about real living things that actually matter and what you say about them could change how other people think about them and perhaps even how they treat them.
Examples of nature-writing that are important include Dave Goulson’s trilogy of science books about invertebrates (focusing on bees for the most part) and Nick Davies recent monograph on the Cuckoo, as well as almost anything Richard Mabey has written. These are books that people SHOULD read; they have important things to say and could actually make a difference, as well as being properly interesting.
On the other hand, if a piece of nature-writing isn’t important on that sort of level, then it should be interesting. Nature is inherently important, even if a lot of people on Earth have yet to realise this, so making a book about nature genuinely interesting could actually go some way to getting more people excited by and interested in, nature. By interesting; I don’t just mean it has to have a lot of ‘wow’ factoids in it, I mean it should be interestingly written – the text should be engaging to the reader, it should be humorous, it should be witty and it should show genuine enthusiasm for the subject. Books that are ‘interesting’ in this way include many of Bill Oddie’s publications and the aforementioned books by Charlie Elder.
The book that I failed to finish is neither important nor interesting, it lacks a purpose. Reading it was, alas, a waste of my time – and I feel harsh for saying that, yet it is the blunt truth. ‘Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo’ by Michael McCarthy is a book that shares a similar conceit to the unnamed book, yet is everything that the put-down book wasn’t. Yes, it is about a guy going around the UK looking at some birds that fit into a certain grouping, but it has a point. It is making a very interesting and important point about the issue of the UK’s migrant birds being largely in decline, some of the species he writes about may well be extinct in the UK within the next decade or so.
McCarthy writes about a depressing – and pressing – subject that needs to be raised into the public eye. He uses his personal experiences of these birds that are in decline to show the reader that these are not just some random birds that people hardly ever see and which no-one will notice when they are gone. He shows that they can impact people, that they are beautiful, that they actually matter through his encounters with them. This other book just uses encounters with birds as filler to bulk out the book or as an excuse to use some unnecessarily florid descriptive words, that just come across as showing off.
This isn’t just me moaning about one book unfairly and a little too harshly; I’m not out to make anyone feel bad or to disrespect the author, my comments are aimed at the publishing fraternity in general and the trends that have arisen in nature-writing recently. Books like Nick Davies ‘Cuckoo’ used to be the rule in the world of nature-writing, now they are the exception by quite some margin. Genuinely informative, interesting, useful and important nature books are still being made – but go to the ‘Nature’ section in your local Waterstones and around three quarters of the books on the shelves are self-indulgent, largely pointless, awards-bait material written by well-off, very handily connected people all trying very hard to be the next J.A. Baker.
Well, you can count me out, thanks. I’m going to stick with Norman Ellison, Dave Goulson and Richard Mabey until things get considerably less pretentious.