Book Review: Tony Angell, The House of Owls

house ofowls

For a quarter of a century Tony Angell observed the different pairs of western screech owls that nested in a box he’d nailed to a tree outside his bedroom window, but The House of Owls (Yale UP) is more than just a record of watching owls in a family setting. Angell is an artist, birder, and naturalist; The House of Owls is the apotheosis of a life-time’s engagement with owls. Steeped in the tradition of Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon, it blends taxonomy, ornithology, biogeography and autobiography illustrated with seventy-five ink drawings of owls in their natural habitat, and reinforced with range maps from The Birds of North America project at Cornell Lab. of Ornithology.

Angell’s interest in depicting owls as “an attractive and engaging species that deserved our interest and attention” was sparked by “intense exchanges over the fate of the birds” with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Attracted by the twin challenges of conservation and capturing on paper an elusive bird that hides in plain sight, he learned that an “emphasis on aesthetics rather than debate […] contributed to a climate where emotions settled down and a reasoned discussion ensued”. As an artist/naturalist “motivated to shape my subject to a degree that does justice to their emotional state”, Angell has since enjoyed a long and distinguished career responding creatively to the symbiotic relationship of birds and humans. For example, he illustrated and co-authored, with scientist John Marzluff,  Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, a groundbreaking investigation into bird behaviour based on innovative research into corvid brain activity (published in paperback in the UK in May 2015.) Through close observation, Angell believes “owls are inquisitive, playful, wrathful, determined, and even contemplative”, and through his meticulous drawings he attempts to communicate the “owlness that sets these birds apart from other avian species”.

You can read the full review in the Times Literary Supplement (12 August 2015)

Tony Angell’s website

What Makes a Reader Buy a Book?

It wasn’t my intention today to buy Kate Mosse’s new book and certainly not in hardback. I went into the shop to buy a print cartridge and the TLS (my subscription ran out) and came out with the TLS and Citadel but no print cartridge as they were too expensive (I bought one in the shop next door).

I wasn’t marched to the till and there weren’t huge piles at the door – no one pressed it into my hand saying YOU MUST BUY THIS BOOK. When I went into the shop I found that I was looking for it and then I convinced myself that, as it was half price, it was a very good deal.

Why do we choose to buy a book? Why do we select one title over the many thousands in print? Publicists and booksellers expend hours scanning book data trying to work out the right combination that will compel readers to buy books. Cover, author exposure, media coverage – are they wasting their time? Does it make a difference?

Here’s my [highly] unscientific bookrambler formula:

mi+na+hpo = 🙂

[converted into English] media interest [I caught Kate Mosse’s ten minute interview on the BBC news ‘Meet the Author’ slot on Sunday morning via a tweet from someone who was watching it + noted author [I’ve read and enjoyed both of her previous books] + half price offer [£10 instead of £20 RRP = 1 happy book buyer

What’s your magic formula?