Tuesday, 6 December 2011

book review: Owl

So, I'm finally getting round to reviewing the book I first mentioned in this post. It took me quite a while to read it (in the meantime I read some other things too), which already tells you something about the book: it's definitely more of an informative read than a gripping page-turner!
northern spotted owl, p.145
However I enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it to owl lovers. Not only is it full of intriguing facts and stories about owls, it also has plenty of lovely colour illustrations of owls, from cave drawings to tribal appliqué.
Wounaan Indian cloth appliqué molita, p.104
Desmond Morris (whose books about human behaviour I was fascinated by as a child) writes in a chatty, lighthearted and straightforward style that is easy to read. He also has occasional bouts of dry humour, which sometimes works and sometimes falls a little flat.

He seems keen to defend owls both from ardent fans (who imagine them to be wise when in fact they are such good hunters that they haven't evolved to be particularly clever) and fearful detractors (who superstitiously associate them with darkness and evil). What is amazing is that both these extreme reactions to owls appear to have existed since the earliest civilisations.
Owl, Skull & Candle, anonymous Dutch or German painting from 17th Century, p.43
Morris clearly admires owls, however, and wants the reader to love them as he does: simply as magnificent birds and expert predators, without the burden of symbolism and myth that seem always to have flourished along with humans' fascination with owls.

He is not interested in owls as 'cute' and does not deign to say much about the proliferation of cute owl designs in conetmporary culture (he looks briefly at owls as sports club emblems etc.)

He does include a very sweet child's drawing of an owl, to show how children, as in some early/tribal images of owls, will often draw the wings around the front so that they are visible (which is also true of a lot of cute owl designs).
'Wise owl, Sad owl, Angry owl' by Matilda, age 10, 2008 (p.8)
Although I was fascinated by the cave engravings (there is a 30,000 year-old great-horned owl etched into a cave in France!) I think my favourite chapter was probably 'Owls and Artists' - I loved reading about Picasso's owl, and how he was "well-aware of the fact that his own face had an owl-like quality"!

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