Book 4 of 52: Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul

I’ve been asked why I review what I review. In 2007, I’ve offered my opinions on books about giant pumpkins, rats, smokers, and a cancer patient addicted to the Price is Right. Sometimes the books are assigned, but, more often than not, I pick what I review. I’ve been drawn in by an interesting cover and a great pitch letter, but the usual reason I’ll pick something is because a book crosses wires with something else going on in my life.

Such is the case with Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul. This time last year, I had zero interest in birding. Like Weidensaul thought as a teenager, my idea of a birder was more along the lines of that woman on Old Maid cards than someone like, well, me.

But then I started writing a book about the South Jersey shore, and I learned, among other things, that Cape May is a birders haven. Weidensaul writes that “Cape May…may be the single best place in North American — perhaps the world — for birding.”

Well, damned if I didn’t write a bucket of pages about Cape May this summer for my book, including a passage dedicated to birding at the southern most town in New Jersey. And damned if I didn’t write an article about ideal birding spots in New Jersey soon after. Too bad I never placed that article I wanted to write about the World Series of Birding, where, in the middle Saturday of May, teams of birders spent 24 hours IDing as many birds as possible within the boundaries in NJ. Cape May is a must stop for any World Series birding team.

All this was on my mind when I opened up the package that held Of a Feather. Weidensaul’s timing, at least in relation to me, was perfect.

I liked the book. I probably would have liked it more if I was a birder and had a tenth of the passion toward the sport as Weidensaul does, but that doesn’t preclude me from admiring his writing ability, and style. His passage in the last pages of the Of a Feather about an elementary school class seeing a northern saw-whet owl for the first time is so well written that I could see both the little bird, and those little kids and their combined wonder, even though I was reclining on my couch in New Jersey and the only wildlife around was a snoring Jack Russell Terrier. Good writing can make me interesting in anything — my penchant for this book is evidence of that.

Weidensaul also reminded me of what a dork I am, because through the entire passage about how, in the late 1800s, people tried to introduce bird species to other parts of the world, all I could think about was Star Trek’s prime directive. I’m a firm believer that lessons learned from Star Trek, like Shakespeare and Scrubs, can be applied to every life situation. Forget Kindergarten. Everything I learned cam from the Bard, Gene Roddenbury and Bill Lawrence. That’s more than a little scary. And pathetic, if you ask me. But I know there are a lot of closet Star Trek fans who would agree.

This also marks the first time that I am writing here about a book I’ve been assigned to review. I debated for some time (at least half of my six mile run on Sunday) about how to approach this. What I realized is that these essays have little to do with my newspaper reviews. The only things they have in common are the book and whether I give it an overall thumbs up or down. Plus, I only have 350-600 words in a newspaper review, so that writing is very tight and give bare bones opinions about what I think of the book. I tried to write about that elementary school/owl passage in the review, but there just wasn’t space. I can write however much I like here, and I can relate birds to Spock if I feel like it, or post this Scrubs clip because I think it so mirrors how I feel about relationships right now:

Again — all in a post about birds. Such is the beauty (or danger) of the internet.

When the review hits paper, I will post it here, much like I did with my review of Ed Hamilton’s Legends of the Chelsea Hotel.

Until then, it’s onto book 5 of 52…

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.


  1. Jess Riley on October 24, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    I’m almost embarrassed to admit how into birds I’ve gotten in the past year. It’s like I skipped my thirties and zoomed right into my seventies.

    (Here via Allison Winn Scotch’s blog featuring her interview with you…:)

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