The lot of the Big Lister is far from easy. In order to add the majority of the world’s 10,000 or so bird species to your life list, you need to dedicate your life to traveling to the ends of the Earth, mastering field ornithology for thousands of habitats, and unraveling the evolving mysteries of taxonomy. Big Listing requires the endurance of an ox, the eyes of an eagle, and the finances of a dot com billionaire. The rewards of such a specific lifestyle may be vast but the toll it takes on one’s life and loved ones ensure that only the most dedicated acolytes of avifauna pursue this passion to its fullest extent. One such icon was Phoebe Snetsinger whose life and legacy is explored in Olivia Gentile’s excellent, aptly-titled biography, Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds.
For those uninitiated into the legend of the world’s most successful female bird-spotter, Phoebe Snetsinger died with a life list of 8,674 birds which places her, depending on the current state of splits and lumps, at #1 or #2 of the ABA World Life List Report. The improbability of that accomplishment alone is worthy of recognition; the fact that she observed the bulk of those bird species 18 years after being diagnosed with a fatal melanoma makes hers a story worth reading.
I’ve long been fascinated with Phoebe Snetsinger’s history but apparently never enough to pick up her autobiography, Birding On Borrowed Time. However, I jumped at the chance to review Gentile’s book. In fact, though I started Life List months ago, I found myself savoring it which is why it’s taken me this long to sing its praises. (Full disclosure – Ms. Gentile has advertised Life List on this site but this advertising relationship did not in any way influence this review. That’s the truth.)
Olivia Gentile brings a steady, unobtrusive tone to her task as biographer, allowing the facts to speak eloquently for themselves. Life List spans Phoebe Snetsinger’s entire history from her birth to the present bracketed between accounts of the origins of recreational birding to the future disposition of birding and listing. Through this patient, thorough account, we learn how one woman shifted through sheer force of will from a life of inertia, dissatisfaction, and yearning to one of travel, adventure, and accomplishment (not to mention thousands of terrific birds!)
Gentile doesn’t judge Snetsinger so I won’t either. However, it is worth noting that the heroine of this narrative was somewhat lacking in perspective, especially towards her later years. A certain level of disregard for others may be required for success in the Big Listing game. Certainly, the obsession wreaks havoc with one’s family as Dan Koeppel describes from personal experience in To See Every Bird on Earth. Yet the qualities that suited Snetsinger to a life of bird chasing probably impaired her abilities as an honest autobiographer. Readers will appreciate the equanimity Gentile brings to her analysis of Snetsinger’s emotional life and relationships with family and friends.
Phoebe Snetsinger lived an exciting life, at least in her later years, but Life List is not an exciting book. The effects of an existence dedicated to obsessive avian observation are writ large throughout but the alternating hunger and wonder that comprise such a lifestyle doesn’t always come through. While Gentile has become a bit of a bird watcher herself she doesn’t write like one. On the other hand, this may be a conscious decision on the author’s part as she does tend to skillfully avoid the biographer’s trap of unfounded projection and conjecture.
I recommend Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds as an inspiring tale of how one woman escaped death by living life on her terms. This story is one of dedication, adventure, tragedy, and of course birding. Yet at heart, Life List is more about a life than a list. The inimitable Phoebe Snetsinger herself summarizes it best: “Birding has meant a vareity of things to many different people, but for me it has been intricately intertwined with survival.”