Here is the thing with journalism-based long-form non-fiction. Sometimes it’s really, really good. And sometimes, the journalistic style doesn’t work for book length non-fiction. Journalists undeniably have a nose for a good story and a great hook (see The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu), but often, when you are creating a book off of previous short-form reporting, it can be difficult to expand a series of articles into an effective, coherent book. Some journalists do it successfully. However, I’ve also found that there tend to be commonalities between less-successful attempts. First, the pace can be draggy, awkward, and inconsistent. Second, ideas or points are often repeated unnecessarily, sometimes word-for-word, in close proximity within the text. Like next page close. Third, there are often so many players, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. And fourth, there is an eye-catching title that sometimes overplays the cool-factor of the actual book. Fortunately, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century is not one of those less-successful attempts.
Johnson’s book starts with the story of natural scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who traveled the world identifying and collecting primarily bird species and who independently discovered the theory of evolution during his time in Indonesia at the same time Darwin was formulating the same theory in the Galapagos. (Fun-ish Fact: Wallace eagerly wrote to his hero, sharing his exciting new theory and hoping for feedback. Darwin, who’d not previously felt much urgency to publish his writings on evolution, said, “Well, better publish first!” and basically scooped Wallace, which is why we are all more familiar with Darwin than Wallace now. Bad form, Darwin. Bad form.) But all of this is set up to Edwin Rist: musical savant, fly-fishing tie genius, and orchestrator of the largest natural history museum heist in history. Johnson exhaustively details his investigation into the decimation and destruction of the Tring Museum’s priceless collection of endangered and extinct bird specimens, many of whom were collected by Wallace himself, perpetrated by Rist for the sole purpose of selling exotic feathers to fly-tiers to fund his purchase of a gold flute for grad school. Sound convoluted? It is.
And I loved it! Just loved it! I love niche histories or accounts about weird things (see my review on the history of cod), and this one is particularly exciting to read. Johnson is equally at home with both the historical pieces and the investigative journalism, and he has a knack for bringing history to life. Johnson does not fall into the usual traps of journalists trying to write long-form non-fiction. The book is a bit repetitive in a few places, but he has a strong sense of pacing, varying section and chapter lengths while maintaining the over-arching narrative. He has a strong sense of story for a narrative that takes place over centuries, and he is smart about which moments need elaboration and which just need to be mentioned for context or clarification. Additionally, there were a lot of players, but Johnson did a great job introducing them initially, planting key identifiers and descriptions, and then reminding the reader who someone is without re-hashing their entire biography.
Now, to be clear, this is not an unbiased account. From the beginning, Johnson is clear about how he pursued this for personal reasons more than altruism. (Johnson was the founder of a non-profit that rescued and provided transition support to Afghans who had served as translators for the US Army but who had not been evacuated by our military and who were now in danger from the Taliban due to their support of US forces. He began this book as a way to work through burnout from his previous work.) He does his best to present Rist, his history, and his motivations as fairly as possible. He also does his research and gives us a thorough understanding of all of these worlds the narrative wanders through, especially fly tying. (To be clear–fly tying is separate from fly fishing, and this distinction is both extremely important and thoroughly examined.) However, Johnson lands firmly on the side of the museum and science, lets you know that, and never really wavers from that perspective. And it is his intense emotions and enthusiasm that make this so fun and so shocking to read. Maybe it’s Johnson’s own inability to understand the destruction of wildlife for a seemingly frivolous and greed-based pursuit (fly-tying not fly-fishing), maybe it was my own inability, but I don’t get it and agree with him wholeheartedly. But I also appreciate that he reveals and comments on the fly tying industry without every vilifying the individuals in it. He maintains his compassion for the people involved even while expressing confusion and disbelief at the situations.
I will say, as a musician, this story irritated me, but not because of Johnson’s writing. No one needs a gold flute, and no one certainly needs to destroy irreplaceable records of our natural history to get one. Check yourself, Rist.
I love it. I think you should read it. It certainly will be one of the most entertaining non-fiction reads of your year.