Review: ‘Feathers’ by Thor Hanson

by Kim on August 2, 2011 · 14 comments

A Note from Kim: This review is a guest post from my friend Erin, a grad student in journalism at UW-Madison, who studied science communication in the protrack MA program. Erin says she is prone to tripping her geek alarm over all kinds of topics, including physics, astronomy, dinosaurs, evolution, and the history of science. She also blogs about the science behind things in our daily lives at her blog, Astronaut Ice Cream. Make Erin feel welcome!

FeathersHere’s basically what I thought when I saw Feathers sitting on Kim’s bookshelf:

Feathers!!!!! They are awesome!

Here’s an exchange I’ve had several times since taking the book:

Me: I’m [about to read/reading/just finished with] a new book.
Other Person: What’s it called?
Me: Feathers.
Other Person: What’s it about?
Me: Feathers. Actual feathers.
Other Person: …Oh.

That’s right: this book is called Feathers and it’s about actual feathers like are on birds.

In addition to the delightfully descriptive title, the interior of this book is also pretty awesome. In 352 pages, Thor Hanson, a field biologist, looks at a variety of feather-related questions, each of which could probably be its own book, including: How did feathers evolve? What do feathers do for birds? What role do feathers play in human culture?

Hanson does a good job with restraining the potentially-almost-infinite range of his inquiries in exchange for some depth, so you don’t feel like you traveled everywhere but only saw the inside of the airports. And though some parts of the book retread what was already really familiar ground to me (the discovery of archaeopteryx, for instance), in the context of the book I was perfectly fine with covering it again, even though Hanson didn’t have much new information for me.

In large part that’s attributable to Hanson’s style, which was clear, explanatory without being didactic, and often funny. Hanson unites the book’s five topical sections by using his own experiences in researching the book as well as anecdotes which introduce or add color:

“There’s a—” I began, but my mind went blank… It was an obvious bird, really, hardly worth mentioning to a group of pros like this. “By the fence there. It’s a—” I reached for the name again, but got nothing. A mental dial tone.

“It’s a robin,” the man next to me said acidly, lowering his binoculars. The others turned away too, and there was a moment of awkward silence. I was leading an Audubon Society field trip, and I had just forgotten the name of the American Robin, possibly the most common backyard species on the continent. In the bird-watching community, this was a faux pas akin to an astronomer’s forgetting the name of the Earth.

Recurring themes in Hanson’s anecdotes, including his chickens and experiences in school/research, further contribute to keeping the book from fragmenting even while the topical sections take very different approaches. I also really enjoyed that throughout the book Hanson’s interest in feathers is as much emotional as it is scientific: feathers are just cool, and Hanson doesn’t try to hide that he feels that way.

Feathers isn’t flawless—one important explanation of feather formation left me totally confused until I saw the illustration on the next page, for instance—but on the whole my dissatisfactions were minor and didn’t significantly impact my enjoyment of the book.

Feathers‘ unifying feature is ultimately feathers, not its narrative, so at least a passing interest in knowing more about feathers is probably necessary to enjoy reading it. But the book doesn’t require in-depth knowledge, and Hanson keeps it engaging and interesting throughout, especially if you’re the kind of person who thinks things like: Feathers!!!!! They are awesome!

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