Sunday, August 15, 2010

A review of my book by Mark Cocker

Birds in Books: three hundred years of south Asian ornithology—a bibliography
By Aasheesh Pittie. 
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010. 
Hbk, 845 pp, ISBN 81-7824-294-X. £45.00
Link to British Birds review

Bibliographies are strange things. Any one who writes a book or even a paper usually has to compile one. Any one who uses books simply to further their own research has to search them. Yet they are often tedious to assemble and, as any author will tell you, at worse they can be a nightmare to render accurate. So many previous authors have wrongly transcribed a book’s details in their own bibliographies that errors can get handed down from one book to another for generations. Yet this much everyone should acknowledge. They are critically important to all forms of scholarship.

How wonderful then to come across someone who takes a special pride in building up a bibliography that is fastidiously accurate, massively detailed and far-ranging in coverage. Aasheesh Pittie has trawled the entire published literature referring to Indian ornithology over the last 300 years and then reduced the details of these 1700 books to one beautifully presented volume. For anyone interested in the subject, it cuts out hours, probably days, spent trawling libraries for all the relevant material. It also provides a model for any author on how to render a title in their own bibliography.

Pittie is as much a historian as he is a bibliophile and archivist. The book includes an introduction that maps out the relationship between the published literature and the wider development of Indian ornithology. This synoptic portrait of Indian bird knowledge is supplemented by a 62-page appendix that contains pithy, engaging biographies of some of the leading European and Asian figures in the field. So while it is primarily a hand tool for students, it is also a book that is a pleasure to browse.

Yet it is the detailed outlines of the 1,700 works that forms the vast bulk of this heavy tome. The range of published material covered is more than just technical ornithological titles and embraces works of more general travel or art that contain bird-related material. Pittie has also gone further than most bibliographers and, as well as the usual suite of title, author, place, publisher, date of publication, he offers a rounded outline of the book’s contents and an inventory of illustrations or photographs and comments on the overall quality or historical significance of the book. To complete its practical utility there are three indices, with page listings respectively to the birds, places and people. Overall the author has done a really thorough job and his splendid book is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in the birds of south Asia.

2010. British Birds 103 (8): 470.

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