Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A review of my book by Tony Gaston

PITTIE, A. Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology: a Bibliography. xxi + 845 pages. Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2010. Hardback, Rs795.00, ISBN 81-7824-294-X. Email (publisher): perblack@gmail.com; (author): aasheesh. pittie@gmail.com.

Published in Ibis 153 (1): 217.

Reviewing a book of 845 pages is a daunting task and even more so when the contents are not a connected text, but a series of entries, varying from two lines to two pages, attempting to encompass every book that makes mention of a bird that occurs in South Asia. My review has, of necessity, been selective: I did not read every page.
Over 1700 books are listed in this bibliography, start- ing with Ray’s Synopsis of 1715 (it contains a list of 22 species of birds from a correspondent in Chennai) and going through to 2008. It includes very general works, such as the Dictionary of Birds (Campbell & Lack 1985) and Alexander’s (1928) Birds of the Ocean, and taxonomic group accounts (e.g. Furness’s The Skuas of 1987), as well as very specific, local works such as Lamba’s (1987) Fauna of Corbett National Park or Small and Beautiful: Sultanpur National Park by Lal et al. (1996). Many works included would be very difficult to locate, even in India, being either old and rare or locally produced, probably in small print runs.
For each book, full publication details are given, including pages, number of illustrations and illustrators and a list of contents, where pertinent, as well as where and by whom the book was reviewed – an especially useful feature, although I suspect not exhaustive. Particularly for older works, there is some detail given on the topics covered. The Introduction explains the philosophy behind the amount of detail devoted to each book, but there clearly has been some arbitrary selection. Authorial comments are very sparse and brief: ‘delightful essays on birdlife around water’, ‘a useful guide on ornithological methods…’, etc. Any new names pro- posed for South Asian birds are listed.
A 62-page section at the end of the book gives brief biographies of most of the authors (those deceased). There are three indexes, one for people, places, species and families, one for new names and one for ‘acronyms, co-authors and co-editors’, although I did not see any acronyms listed. The large numbers of abbreviations used are explained at the end of the Introduction – I really needed this feature.
This book is a work of enormous dedication by a true bibliophile, and the wealth of detail is astonishing. Even with all the resources of the World Wide Web, it would, I think, be impossible to assemble solely from online sources such a comprehensive list of books relating to the birds of South Asia. Consequently, this bibliography can truly be said to be unique. Personally, I share the author’s enthusiasm for everything bookish and applaud his enormous industry. However, I have to question how many of us there are about in 2010. Despite my own interest in books and in the birds of South Asia, I cannot imagine actually making a great deal of use of this collection. Ornithology, except for identification, is now recorded in journals and magazines, rather than in books. Libraries have become places where people browse the web, rather than the shelves. Sadly, a bibliography like this seems like kippers at English teatime – a wonderful institution, but one that may have served another era.

Tony Gaston