a fleeting illusion of knowability

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The enduring popularity of hard-copy field guides is more surprising given the current transformation in the way we receive information — news through the Internet, say, or television on an iPhone. Publishers are clearly aware of these developments. Video podcasts supplement the new Peterson guide. The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America comes with a DVD of 138 birdsongs. And some guides, like eNature and FishBase, exist entirely online.

Yet it’s the “throwback” that remains popular. Indeed, the Peterson guide comes with a price of $26; the video podcasts created to accompany it are available for free on the publisher’s Web site.

In Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, Scott Weidensaul views field guides as vehicles for experiencing for the awesomeness that is life. “Field guides make the natural world knowable; they are the first entry point for most people into the diversity of life on the planet,” he writes. “One can shuffle through life noticing little more than dandelions and roses, but open a field guide and…[w]hat had been a blur begins to resolve itself into myriad distinct shards, each unique, each lovely.”

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