Books, Books, Books

A little over a week ago, my colleague Ellen wrote a post recommending Dorling Kindersley Visual Guides. And rightly so: they're lavishly beautiful books. But if you read them you can see the text is a little--how shall I put this?--top-heavy with facts and a little lacking in personality. Contrast Dorling Kindersely's Animal with Thomas Morton's 1632 work The New English Canaan, a description of the flora and fauna (and natives and colonists) of New England in the first third of the seventeenth century.* Now if you want straightforward information about, say,  animal anatomy, habitat and reproduction, DK is the way to go.  But only Morton will tell you that the "Beare is a tyrant at a Lobster," or that the "Beaver...a beast ordained, for land and water both...sitts with his tayle hanging in the water, which else would over heate and rot off." And just in case any of his readers back in England had thoughts of coming to Massachusetts to go on safari, he’s quick to spare them a long journey and inevitable disappointment: “Lyons there are none in New England. It is contrary to the Nature of the beast to frequent places accustomed to snow.” I’ve perused DK’s Animal several times, and while I don’t doubt the information is accurate, how useful is it? For example, I’ve never found anything relevant to my medical needs. But The New English Canaan tell us that “Racowne oyle” can alleviate sciatic nerve pain, and if you’re ever bitten by a rattlesnake, drinking a saucer of “Salat oyle” (salad dressing) should fix you right up. I’ve never had sciatic nerve pain or been bitten by a rattlesnake (not yet anyway) but now I’m prepared. Let’s compare DK's Animal and Morton’s New English Canaan when it comes to coverage of a specific animal. DK is quite accurate when it comes to the basic facts about squirrels: Length: 9-11 inches Tall: 6-10 inches Social Status: individual Excerpt from written description: "It may emerge from its grass- and bark-lined twig nest in winter to forage." It tells you what squirrels are in and of themselves, but not how they relate to others. How do they fit into the bigger picture? Morton doesn't hesitate to tell us: "hee haunts our howses, and will rob us of our Corne, but the Catt many times, payes him the price of his presumption." In other words, squirrels are trespassers and thieves, but if you've got a cat you'll be okay. Do the editors of DK Animal give us such practical information about squirrel depredations? No. It's Morton who's got our backs. And while Morton’s not afraid to be blunt about the squirrel crime problem, he’s not into species profiling. He’s quick to add that some squirrels are okay: “[the] little flying Squirill, with batlike wings, which hee spreads when hee jumps from Tree to Tree…does no harme.” I don't mean this post to be utterly dismissive of Dorling Kindersley Visual Guides. They're great books. But when it comes to a choice between a tome consisting of some facts interspersed with pretty pictures, and a guide book with a kindly narrator who anticipates my medical needs, gets me up to speed on squirrel delinquency, and tells me where not to expect lions, I know what I'll pick. *In the second volume of Tracts and Other Papers Relating Principally to the Origin and Settlement of the Colonies in North America. (Call No. LOCAL HISTORY NE 973.2 TR) I leave you with a bear clearly waiting for an opportunity to tyrannize a crustacean: pen and ink drawing of a bear

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