Monday, June 9, 2014

Field Guide to Reading Discoveries

There’s lots for nature lit lovers to enjoy in a new anthology of book reviews, commentary, and interviews called Washington Independent Review of Books: A Sampler. Natalie Wesler critiques a new biography of Thoreau’s editor and sometimes-friend in Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall; Susana Trapani examines the breakdown of a fictional utopian community in the face of climate change and human nature in Arcardia, by Lauren Groffl; and Grace Cavalieri celebrates Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea and other outstanding poetry collections that explore our world—natural and otherwise.

All of the selections first appeared in the insightful and often-surprising online publication Washington Independent Review of Books (WIRB). In 2011, even as traditional media cancelled book review sections, and shuttered bookstores curtailed browsing for new titles, WIRB launched its daily postings of pithy fiction, nonfiction, and poetry reviews, plus features about literary figures, trends, and controversies. David Stewart, president of WIRB, says each posting represents the site’s efforts to “poke your consciousness” and “tell you about ideas and adventures you’ve forgotten or never knew.” WIRB board members Kitty Kelley and Ken Ackerman, along with Stephanie Eller, have put together their favorite tidbits from WIRB online to create the appetizing print anthology, Sampler. In some ways, paging through the collection feels like falling down a rabbit hole—each brief piece opens up a world of reading possibilities beyond your wildest imagination. In fact, if you tried to read every work of the creative minds featured therein, you would go mad as a hatter.
As a regular reader of the website, I was pleased to see some of my favorite reviews made the cut. Carrie Marden’s review is how I knew to put Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist on my husband’s birthday list (Marden aptly notes that Stewart “makes the reader feel like a friend perched on the next bar stool”). The late Donald Carr’s review of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science is so tantalizingly detailed that I want to write about the erudite and flawed Agassiz myself.
My review of Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World is one of the selections in “Science and Culture.” By eminent historian William Leach, Butterfly People profiles leading lepidopterists and butterfly collectors of the 19th century, revealing aesthetic as well as scientific drives behind their obsessive acquisitiveness. Thinking about those zealous naturalists in the context of WIRB’s anthology reminded me of similarly obsessive book collectors. Just as butterfly enthusiasts know they cannot scoop up every iridescent winged insect, book lovers realize their reading time and shelf space are limited. But like a good field guide, WIRB’s Sampler and daily web reviews can be a lodestar in a literary universe with almost too many paths to follow and wonders to discover.