Sunday book review – Flight from Grace by Richard Pope

This is a finely produced and beautiful book about birds in history. Even if you didn’t read the words between the pictures you’d get a lot out of it. And, that was how I started with this book – I flicked through it, was caught up by an image, read the caption and then looked around on the page for more information. And this was very satisfying.

The images are stunning. Whether it be the (perhaps) 32,000 year-old etching of an owl, very clearly an owl, deep in the caves of Chauvet in the south of France or be it Chagall’s Fall of Icarus (from the 1970s), the illustrations are well chosen and very well reproduced.

But this is not a picture book. The author provides a thesis that our early ancestors worshipped many living creatures as gods, including birds, and that over time this shifted to there being multiple gods mostly of human-ish form and then the monotheistic religions swept the board. Through this process birds dropped down the pecking order and we arrive at the present where instead of us believing that we are dependent on birds we know that they are dependent on us for their future. It’s a very interesting read with lots of ideas and propositions that were unfamiliar to me, but nonetheless enjoyable to sample. In places it felt a bit academic to this reader, but then it is written by a retired professor of Russian literature and culture. However, the author is a lifelong birder and the ornithological background knowledge to the book is strong. I looked at a few of the images of ancient artwork and wondered to myself whether the species suggested really was the one in question and always came to the view that it probably was.

The last chapter speculates on whether we should realign our relationship with birds, and if so how, and whether we actually will. I strongly recommend reading that chapter first of all as I found, from my background, getting into the book in Chapter 1 more of a struggle.

This is a book that I would never have bought, would probably never have come across and most likely would never have read had the publisher not sent it my way. But I’m glad that I have spent quite some time with it. It was stimulating and, for me, where it ends up is more interesting than where it sets off. But different readers may find the earliest parts of the book more rivetting than the lessons for the future. This is a well-written book and I enjoyed it.

The cover? From the artwork that features in this book I would not have chosen this detail from a portrait of the Irish eighteenth century actress Peg Woffington. I’d give it 5/10.

Flight from Grace: a cultural history of humans and birds by Richard Pope is published by McGill-Queens University Press.


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