This is, for me, the very best natural history book I have read this year. Now perhaps I ought to mention that I am dining with its author later in the week but we’ll each be paying our own way so I haven’t been bought. It is a delight – and that is in a year of delightful books with Nick Davies’s Cuckoo running this a close second and two other books with quite an involvement of butterflies and moths (The Moth Snowstorm and In Pursuit of Butterflies) coming along in close order.
Peter Marren writes so well, and he knows so much, and he is generous with his knowledge – in person as well as in the pages of this book. When writing of Nabokov’s Lolita, Marren produces a fine analysis of the partly hidden butterfly references in the book and this wonderful sentence ‘These subtle references, lurking in the verbal undergrowth, act as a kind of authorial watermark’.
The book is about the place of butterflies in our culture and it is packed with information about butterflies, about those who collected and/or studied them over the last two centuries especially, but also the role of butterflies in our more distant culture. What might a Red Admiral signify in a medieval painting? And what might its pattern signify to an attacking bird? The answers to both questions are fascinating – and unexpected.
The lovely jacket is by Carry Akroyd – a slightly different style from her usual, but no less perfectly beautiful for that.
I could tell you more about things that are in the book but all I really need to say is that you will probably enjoy it immensely. To find out, open the book to the first page of any chapter and start reading. I wager that you will want to turn the page, every time. Marren writes with easy erudition – it’s not pretentious, it’s not forced and it’s not over-elaborate. It’s just lovely.
There is still time to see some Adonis Blues, Silver-spotted Skippers and Brown Hairstreaks in the weeks ahead, and much more, but you should secure a copy of this book to read through the winter months. If you ration yourself to a chapter a fortnight you will come out the other end, in spring, thirsting to see butterflies with renewed enthusiasm thanks to the tales that will be occupying your head. Or just read it from cover to cover in a very few sittings as I did.
This will be a strong contender for all the relevant ‘book of the year’ lists. It’s a true delight.
Rainbow Dust – three centuries of delight in British Butterflies by Peter Marren is published by Square Peg.