Saturday, November 5, 2011

Books I'm reading # 12 - Guides Britannica

Time was when almost every middle class household had a set of nature guides. The AA Book of Britain's Countryside Springs to mind; my mother still displays her Readers Digest illustrated series; I've written before about Observers Guides and Wayside and Woodland. Many of these, or their equivalents, are still available, but their popularity has waned - replaced by television spin-offs that started with Life on Earth.

The 'book of the series' might be a popular money spinner for the BBC, but in most cases (and I'm generalising here) they're not something you to turn to time and again - for despite the sumptuous production, let's be honest, they're pretty dull to read. I'd bet if you did a survey you'd find most people admire the photos, read the odd chapter, and then let the thing languish untouched.

So it's interesting that a new series of books has been published, bridging the gap between the coffee table and the reference shelf - they combine the best of both genres and in my view, they do it superbly.

What sets the Britannica series apart is its editorial format. These are not taxonomic guides; they are more like encyclopedias, stuffed with observations, historical records, folklore, art and science. Much of the material comes from amateur and professional naturalists, and the genius of the books is in blending this with extensive research, excellent writing and fabulous photographs. The books give the 'story' to their subjects, so it's possible to spend hours reading whole sections, or like me, just dipping in now and again - either way you'll come away more richly informed than you would from a traditional guide.

Birds Britannica is written and edited by Mark Cocker, arguably our finest pure nature writer and certainly, king of the birds. If you haven't read his Crow Country, you should - shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize it was a crime it didn't win. Richard Mabey, took the lead on Flora Britannica, and Peter Marren on Bugs. All three are experts in their subjects without necessarily being 'hard' scientists.

Now it might not surprise you that I like the bugs edition the best (though only just), for it is insects which interest me most. But it's also because there are so few books that even attempt this territory. For a start the definition of bugs is panoramic: from amoebas to tapeworms, from true bugs to spiders - there's chapters on molluscs and sea squirts for goodness sake. And even in those sections about which I know quite a bit, I still find swathes of new information - interestingly the book sits on neither my coffee table or my bookshelves - it's constantly on my desk.

But I'm in danger of droning on, and that isn't what these books are about - they're about a joy in the subject, about cramming you with information - they're like one of those people you meet and then think, what a fantastic chap, love to talk to him again. Or to make a more topical analogy, they're like Stephen Fry and Brian Cox and Kate Humble and Leonardo da Vinci and Rolf Harris (ok, maybe not him) all rolled into one.

Enough! For now, I really am droning on - just take it from me they're fantastic. Each book costs around £20 from Amazon - about £35 - £40 from your local bookseller, but they might do you deal (worth asking) - either way they're excellent value. If you're struggling for a Christmas gift for someone who likes the outdoors, you really won't go wrong with these.


  1. I borrow the Flora Britannica from the library on a regular basis. Really must get my own copy from Amazon as it weighs a tonne! But I agree, it is an amazing book. I think it gave Richard Mabey a nervous breakdown because he put so much into it. I've not seen the Bugs or Birds editions, but will have to get those too at some point.

  2. Hello Mark:
    These do indeed look excellent, and we regret to say that we have not come across any of them. As you say, it is so good when a book can inform as well as entertain since that is a most satisfying combination. We shall, on your recommendation be seeking them out. It would be the Flora Britannica which would have most appeal for us!

  3. I only have the Flora one and I love all the folklore and various common names presented for each plant.

  4. I like my Ontario Nature Guide. This week it's helped me identify a Common Gartersnake (yuk) and a Belted Kingfisher. I love that people put so much into these reference books. Yours look like labours of love.

  5. Thanks for the recommendation : I have never come across the guides before. I will search them out the next time I am in Waterstones (and then probably buy them cheaper on Amazon!)

  6. Do you think these books are suitable for someone with no previous interest in the subjects, but keen to learn? I've got a person in mind, possible Christmas gift.
    Thanks for sharing this great series.

  7. LUCEWOMAN - yes, absolutely, they are the sort of book you will keep for years and years - that said, most people would want a pocket guide too. Filed guides are cheap and easily available but less of an obvious 'present' than the encyclopaedic guides I was writing about in this post