Rare Book Monthly
Book Catalogue Reviews - August - 2010 Issue
Natural History from Sotheran's
By Michael Stillman
The latest catalogue from Sotheran's of London is devoted to the subject of Natural History. Sotheran's offers both general and specific catalogues, and this one falls into the latter category. Here you will find primarily English books written about plants and animals, including the human one. Many are noted for their illustrations, while others are more significant for their texts. Here are some of them.
Most people associate Charles Darwin only with evolution, but he wrote several far less controversial works after his Origin of Species. Item 75 is The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects. This look at the sex life of orchids was considered tame enough even by Victorian standards. The American botanist Asa Gray noted, "if the Orchid-book (with a few trifling omissions) had appeared before the Origin the author would have been canonized rather than anathematized by the natural theologians." Darwin hoped that the detail he provided in his orchid book would at least demonstrate to doubters the seriousness of his efforts in reaching his conclusions concerning evolution. Offered is a second edition published in 1877. Priced at £500 (or roughly $752 in U.S. dollars).
Item 2 is an obscure, anonymously written little book from the 1840s published in Worcester, Massachusetts: Natural History of Birds. It covers birds well known in New England such as the hoopoe, swan, crane, partridge... Hoopoe? I lived for 20 years in New England and never heard of it. It doesn't much look like anything I ever saw in New England, and is supposed to live in Asia and Africa, but perhaps in the 1840s...? £50 (US $75).
Once you get to know your birds, it's time to make friends. Item 17 is Niel Morrow Ladd's How to make friends with birds, published in 1916. This book isn't a self-help book or treatise of pick up lines, but is actually a guide on how to attract birds to your garden. £30 (US $45).
Once you have induced those birds into your garden, you may want to catch them. Then you can make use of this next book: Cage and Chamber-Birds. Their Natural History, Habits, Food, Diseases, Management and Modes of Capture. This is the 1853 first English edition of German J.M. Bechstein's advice on capturing and caring for caged birds. Item 5. £400 (US $602).
On second thought, maybe you don't want to capture that bird. Long before many people were concerned about the lives of animals, noted ornithologist William Henry Hudson published this attack on the caging of birds: A Thrush That Never Lived. Published circa 1914, Hudson writes about an epitaph he found written by a caged thrush (we will assume this is a work of fiction). The thrush shared Hudson's view that birds should be allowed to fly free. Item 13. £55 (US $83).