Birds and Bibles in History by Tian Hattingh
Specialization is not always aesthetically appealing to the generalist scavenging creatures who have so effectively taken over the planet – aka, all of us. For instance, despite my well-documented personal admiration for them, many people think that Black Skimmers look goofy. Ditto Roseate Spoonbills; ditto vultures of all kinds.
Bird first, metaphor second.
The same is true of literary endeavors. When I wish to entertain people with the eccentricity of my book collection, I don’t point out that I own As I Lay Dying AND Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, even though that’s a bit like keeping Prairie Falcons and Rock Pigeons in the same aviary. No, I point out the Black Skimmers of my collection, perfectly adapted for a purpose most people would never consider: the handbook of domestic eel diseases (in Japanese! but it has pictures), the guides to figuring out when the end of the world is coming (in the 1960s… no, wait, the 1970s. 1980. 2000 for sure, you guys), and the 1940s sex manuals (redacted).
I’ve even thought of dabbling in Black Skimmer Literature myself. Last semester, while taking a seminar devoted to reading Ulysses, I decided that what the world needed was an index to all the bird references in the works of James Joyce. A bit later, I had a sort of nervous breakdown. But, my professor and I still agree that the project seems like one that could be useful to the field of Joyce scholarship, and I hope to return to it one day.
All this is a round-about way of saying that it is important to look past the initial oddness of a book like Tian Hattingh’s Birds and Bibles in History and consider what, exactly, it is meant to be used for. The vast majority of birders will get little or no use out of a volume like this, and while I’m not well-acquainted with modern Bible scholarship, I can imagine that most theologians will be able to live without it too. But, should you ever find yourself needing to know, in the instant, which families among the Galliformes are never mentioned in Scripture, or where and when the Bible mentions birds that have never been identified down to species, or which unclean bird is referred to under the same name as an equally unclean chameleon for bonus confusion, then here you have a tool for the job.
Of course, evolution* demands that a tool not only do its job, but do it efficiently. Here, an author and editor are less effective than millenia of natural selection. Certain sections of Birds and Bibles in History have already been done, and done better: the pocket history of ornithology covers mostly material that has been more artfully presented elsewhere, and the brief history of the Bible as text is likewise too compressed to present anything new. Also, the aside about John Denver is frankly mystifying, and perhaps best typifies the book’s ‘labor of love’ quality – the author frequently rambles off the garden path, gathering flowers that may or may not make a harmonious arrangement with the rest of his material, and his tone is relentlessly earnest, if not slightly awkward, at all times. Whether you find this charming or unbearably frustrating is largely a matter of taste. The best of the book is in the more focused later sections, where each avian family is rigorously cross-referenced with every place in the Bible where it is mentioned.
In short, what we have here is a minor, eccentric, but unique work. Unless you are a skimmer, there is not much chance that you need it. But if you appreciate skimmers from a distance, you may nevertheless want it.
*which I am pleased to note this book acknowledges, counter to the stereotype of religious literature.
Skimmer by Steve Hillebrand, courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service