Still Life by Melissa Milgrom. The best book about taxidermy you will read all year. The best cover for a book about taxidermy you will ever see all year.
Interested in modern museum taxidermy? You need to read this book. Does the idea of a dead animal with glassy eyes looking right at you freak you out? You need to read this book.
Some readers know that I take the kids to the Ecotarium all the time, and one of our favorite parts is the African animals exhibit. A few months ago, we were in the exhibit, and I heard a woman tell her husband that seeing the animals like that really bothered her. It doesn’t bother me (in the same way that wearing a forty-year-old leather jacket doesn’t bother me), but I suppose I sympathized more with that woman than with someone who decides to stuff a giant deer.
Until I read this book, that is. Milgrom profiles various taxidermists, each with their own philosophies and techniques, and writes with such wit and verve that I could not put the book down. The only complaint I have about this book is that there aren’t enough pictures, but I highly recommend this to anyone who’s interested in natural history museums in general and taxidermy in particular.
One of the books Millgrom recommended was The Heyday of Natural History by Lynn Barber, which is one of the best-designed books I’ve read in a long time; it looks like an old-fashioned natural history book from the late 1800s. (Barber herself has been in the news recently.) It’s also one of the best-written nonfiction books I’ve read in a long time.
This is the book to read if you’re interested in how ‘natural history’ developed, or if you want insight into some bizarre trends in Victorian behavior, or if you didn’t realize that Edward Lear (yes, that Edward Lear) was an extremely talented illustrator — on the order of Audubon — before having some vision loss, or if you want to spend nearly 300 pages marvelling that Michael Faraday (who, incidentally, was quite the babe when he was young) accomplished anything at all considering that the vast majority of the ‘natural history’ crowd had not the first inclination towards anything involving the scientific method. This is such a great read that you’ll want to take it out immediately after I return it.
And — finally — for the kids, I’m recommending the works of Thornton Burgess. Right now, my older son and I are in the middle of On the Green Meadows, and I just scored two more of his books at the library book sale, which you should really shop at this weekend! (There are also quite a few of his books available on librivox; we’ve listened to this one straight through and highly recommend it.)