If one of the projects of ecocriticism has been to suggest some ways in which its methods and perspectives can be extended to fields of study that may not seem obviously amenable to it, that do not appear to be particularly “green” on the surface, then the reverse should also be true: we should be able to use the approaches offered by those disparate academic areas to shed light on the social and cultural ways in which we have constructed the natural world. One such area that suggests itself—that has been hiding in plain sight, basically—is what has come to be called “history of the book” or the study of print culture. After all, ecocritics spend a lot of time reading books and examining their environmental implications, but what about the books themselves, the media that deliver the texts that the ecocritics study? How might they serve as both a material and conceptual interface between readers and the world of nonhuman nature? I am not referring only to obvious questions of resource use—the trees that make the paper, the fuel used in distribution, and so on—but to larger questions having to do with how books position people relative to the systems of social and cultural structures in which they live and through which they perceive and experience the world. We read books to help us think about nature; how can we read books as books to help achieve the same end? Ever since Robert Darnton asked “What is the history of books?” in his groundbreaking 1982 article of the same name, the study of print culture has become quite a robust interdisciplinary field (Darnton). You can always tell when an area of study feels it has fully arrived on the scene, or wants to fully arrive on the scene, when its practitioners start producing sprawling multivolume overviews to introduce, summarize, and make available the most recent scholarship in the field, and the publication of the University of North Carolina Press’s five-volume A History of the Book in America over the years from 2000 to 2009 offers just such a compendium, providing not only a useful research tool but also a kind of slow-developing snapshot of how this corner of academia conceives of itself and understands itself to have developed over the last thirty-plus years. One of the key assumptions guiding this field of study, as Cathy N. Davidson succinctly notes in introducing the first important anthology of essays on book history in 1989, is that “a book exists, simultaneously, as a physical object, a sign system, the end product of diverse arts and labors, and the starting point for intercultural and intracultural communication” (1). In putting together another such anthology, Michele Moylan and Lane Stiles concur regarding how these printed objects signify and communicate, arguing that when we read a book we also “read the physicality or materiality of the book as well as and in relation to the text itself,” and thus that the act of reading involves “not only textual competence but material competence, an ability to read the semiotics of the concrete forms that embody, shape, and condition the meaning of the text itself … . [T]o ignore the semiotics of the book artificially wrenches texts from a complex system of cultural signification” (2). As we read books about, say, nature in its social and cultural dimensions, that is, the book itself is also talking about nature through the very things that comprise it, ranging from bindings and illustrations and paper to printed matter ancillary to the text itself such as title pages, copyright pages, indexes, and so on. Not only the author but the printed object itself is a social and cultural commentator and actor—here, in the world of environmental discourse. Or, at least, such a nature-oriented analysis should certainly be possible and would fit well with other work being done broadly across the environmental humanities regarding how constructions of nature are formed and expressed. However, there does not yet seem to have been a “green turn” in print culture studies. The twenty-eight chapters in the last volume in the History of the Book project (which, again, I am taking as the field’s self-portrait, more or less), “The Enduring Book: Print Culture in Postwar America,” tend not to focus on emerging interdisciplinary connections in the field, but rather on new historical developments: the rise of book clubs; changes in the book publishing industry and its technologies; new developments in the religious, Spanish language, African American, radical, textbook, and scientific publishing worlds; and so on. The closest thing to an environmentally oriented essay is Priscilla Coit Murphy’s “Books and the Media: The Silent Spring Debate,” a useful examination of what we might call the public life of Rachel Carson’s influential text that Murphy drew from her book-length What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring. But here too the focus is on the publication process of the book (whose first iteration was a long essay in The New Yorker) and on media reaction to it, not necessarily on what Carson was actually saying. By way, perhaps, of starting a scholarly conversation, I would like to suggest at least three ways in which we can examine books for ecocritical implications, three ways in which what Moylan and Stiles call “the relationship between materiality and meaning, between book and text” (2) can have specifically environmental significations. First, as physical objects made largely of paper, books make significant environmental demands; in recent years, though, many publishers have taken steps to ameliorate their impacts, often including what I think of as statements of environmental principles on their books’ copyright pages and thereby situating books as objects within larger discourses regarding consumption and waste. Second, a visit to any library (or a look, again, at a copyright page) demonstrates that books are classified objects, and bibliographers attempting to classify books about nature—to construct what I think of as a kind of bibliographic menagerie—have encountered the same vexing problems of division and grouping as have scientists trying to classify biological species in nature; books on a shelf, that is, recapitulate and reinforce arguments about how the natural world is ordered. Finally, books are generic objects, and the material conventions of certain genres of books that purport to definitively describe aspects of the natural world—for example, nature guides—often rely on practices and assumptions that, ironically, may work against their goal of fostering an informed nature appreciation. These are by no means the only ways in which print culture studies and ecocriticism might be brought together, of course; rather, they are brief examples which I hope will demonstrate that this particular interdisciplinary conjunction is both possible and fruitful. The Physical Book: Environmental Impacts and Environmental Discourse It would certainly be appropriate for “The Enduring Book” to at least include an essay on the environmental impacts of modern-day publishing—and, in fact, it seems like a bit of an oversight for it not to have, given the increased concern in recent years that publishers have shown over their products’ impact on resources and the quality of air and water. It might be tempting sometimes to look at books as a good old-fashioned alternative to modern resource-consumptive forms of electronic entertainment, but they leave a large environmental footprint. Paper manufacturing devours millions of trees and produces tons of greenhouse gases; distributing books depends on fossil-fuel-dependent forms of transportation; publishing houses use as much power as any other kind of office; even inks can contain high amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). More and more publishers are adopting green practices and technologies, often publicizing the fact on the copyright page of their books. Some make a general statement of principles: a 2013 book from Trinity University Press proudly notes that it “strives to produce its books in an environmentally sensitive manner. We favor working with manufacturers that practice sustainable management of all natural resources, produce paper using recycled stock, and manage forests with the best possible practices for people, biodiversity, and sustainability.” Others seek to reassure readers about the environmental benignity of the very object they hold in their hands: “Cornell University Press,” for instance, “strives to use environmentally responsible suppliers and materials to the fullest extent possible in the publishing of its books. Such materials include vegetable-based, low-VOC inks and acid-free papers that are recycled, totally chlorine-free, or partly composed of non-wood fibers.” Some presses back up their environmental commitment with facts and figures, such as the University of California Press, which produces books “printed on New Leaf EcoBook 60, containing 60% post-consumer waste, processed chlorine free; 30% de-inked recycled fiber, elemental chlorine free; and 10% FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] -certified virgin fiber, totally chlorine free.” And a few link their environmentally responsible practices directly to the health of the land, such as the tiny Green Frigate Books, one of whose books, having been printed on 100% recycled stock, “has saved: 13.1 trees (40ʹ tall and 6-8ʹʹ diameter); 5, 554 gallons of water; 2, 234 kilowatt hours of electricity; 612 pounds of solid waste; 1, 203 pounds of greenhouse gases.” Many presses note simply on their copyright pages that they are members of the Green Press Initiative (GPI). The GPI is an industry group that awards “Environmentally Responsible Publisher” certifications to publishers that meet benchmarks in such areas as using recycled paper and paper sourced from FSC-approved forests; reducing greenhouse gas emissions from offices and fuel consumption related to book distribution; using unbleached or minimally bleached paper and low-VOC inks; incorporating paper made from alternatives to wood fiber; and keeping remaindered books out of landfills. In 2017, the GPI had sixty-two members ranging from the giant Hachette Book Group and the leading children’s book publisher Scholastic to university presses such as Harvard and Iowa to small local and regional presses like Vermont’s Chelsea Green Publishing, each of which can note, as Iowa does, that it “is a member of Green Press Initiative and is committed to preserving natural resources.” Readers who encounter any of these messages are reassured that the object that they possess, and the process by which it was manufactured and distributed, represents a self-conscious effort by the publisher to limit the environmental impacts of its enterprise. The book becomes an embodiment of what may very well be the reader’s own ecocritical attitudes; the act of reading becomes, or is believed to be, a subtle but definite act of good environmental citizenship. This is one way in which the study of print culture makes room for a green emphasis. Such an emphasis, though, focuses only on the process by which the physical book comes into being and gets onto bookshelves, not on what we might think of as its intellectual life within the field of environmental discourse, the way the book as material artifact positions us conceptually as well as materially relative to the natural world. As I have noted, I am also interested here in the social and cultural aspects of print culture insofar as they shed light on the environmental beliefs and attitudes and on how readers may be encouraged by the physical books they read to construct nature in certain ways, ways which may influence readers’ interaction with the nonhuman natural world as a whole. The ways in which books exist in the physical world, that is, and in which we encounter and interact with those books, also enact and model the kinds of relationships that we have with the objects of the natural world which those books describe; book history and natural history come to occupy a similar, mutually constituting conceptual landscape. As such, if the study of the history of the book is as robust as its practitioners claim, we should expect it to have clear ecocritical implications as part of its academic program. Classified Books: Organizing Nature Here is one such implication, having to do with the simple act of deciding where to put a book on a shelf; when bibliographers make that decision, they recapitulate choices made by scientists about how to categorize and organize biological units such as species, both such decisions arising as they do from a similar epistemology regarding the composition of the natural world. Each field, through its practice, tells the other that the basis for its choices is correct. Consider the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication (CIP) data that appears on copyright pages, right there with the publisher’s statement of environmental principles. You are all familiar with it—that block of text that includes the author’s name, the book’s title, the ISBNs of the various formats in which it has been published, its official Library of Congress call number, several other long and mysterious numbers, and, importantly, the various Library of Congress subject headings under which it has been classified. The CIP data looks very well thought out and definitive, almost scientific in its approach and judgments. The system it embodies has the weight of history and the sanction of widespread use behind it: over the course of the twentieth century, most university libraries switched over from Melvil Dewey’s decimal system because, as Phyllis Dain explains, “the Library of Congress scheme was more scholarly, more pragmatic, more detailed, and more accommodating to new subjects than the Dewey Classification” (456); moreover, notes Jane Aikin Rosenberg, “The Library’s prestige, its expert staff, and the excellence of its products induced the profession to accept LC practices as authoritative” (160). Those practices have taken on the authority of other taxonomic systems, such as the familiar Linnaean taxonomy under which humans are classified as Homo sapiens, that label being the phylogenetic equivalent of our Library of Congress call number; once you know it, you know where to find us on the great systematized bookshelf of living things. There are thousands upon thousands of Library of Congress subject headings; certainly any book about anything at all can be accurately classified under one or several of the multitudinous possibilities they offer. So where do we put books about, say, nature? As an experiment, I pulled out 100 academic books from my shelves that had in their titles the words “nature,” “environment,” “ecology,” “conservation,” or some grammatical variation thereon (“natural,” “environmental,” and so on). I did so on the assumption that, very broadly speaking, these books were all in some way “about” the same thing—that is, nature, a physical and imaginative realm that possesses enough conceptual unity, even if that concept often goes unexamined, that it can be labeled with a single noun. The title is an important part of a book’s paratextual apparatus (as is the CIP data), the paratext being, in Gérard Genette’s definition, “a certain number of verbal or other productions, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations,” that, while they may not belong to the text per se, “surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world, its ‘reception’ and consumption in the form (nowadays, at least) of a book” (1; emphasis in original). Thus, rhetorically, the presence of “nature” and closely related terms in these book titles guides readers to “receive” them in a particular way, the paratext constituting “a commentary that is authorial or more or less legitimated by the author, [that] constitutes a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that … is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it (more pertinent, of course, in the eyes of the author and his allies)” (2; emphasis in original). Paratextually, then, these books claim to be covering the same broad subject. Their titles link the texts within to ideas about nature without, stitching the two together, causing a certain refraction of ideas to take place within the zone between the reader’s mind and the printed page, subtly influencing the reader to approach the text in a certain way, to receive it within a body of previously received ideas about nature, about what and where it is and why it is meaningful. According to their Library of Congress classification numbers, the books I selected fall into twenty-eight different subject areas as indicated by the letters that introduce those numbers, whereby PS signifies American literature and so on. Thus, paradoxically enough, this pile of 100 books is at the same time “about” one thing and “about” twenty-eight separate things. This gives us a visual example of something that we already know: that this thing we call “nature” can be approached, studied, understood, conceptualized—and thus, in a sense, defined—in a vast multitude of ways. Once you bring a taxonomic system to bear on this pile of books about nature, any sense of conceptual unity that we might attach to that word instantly splinters and fragments. There are two aspects of this fact that trouble me when I look at these books collectively. The first has to do with the strict separation of the various subject categories that they belong to, a separation visually emphasized by the twenty-eight separate stacks of books (if, in many cases, a single book may be considered a stack) that I ended up with on the floor. To revert to the conceit of the bibliographic menagerie, this sight puts me in mind of those old-style zoos in which representatives of different species were kept strictly separated from each other in discrete cages, with no suggestion of the ecological relationships that might exist between those different species and between them and the landscapes of their native habitats. The second, related point has to do with the contents of those cages. Do these classifications even make sense? Why is this book in this pile rather than that pile; why are these two seemingly similar books in different parts of the room from each other? A case in point regarding these last questions: Karl Jacoby’s Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation and Louis S. Warren’s The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America would seem to bear a strong genetic resemblance to each other. Their titles share some of the same words; their covers bear pictures of old black-and-white photos of shady-looking characters posing in front of recently poached game. And yet—and despite the picture of dead bison on the cover—Jacoby’s book is listed under SB, Horticulture, Plant Propagation, and Plant Breeding. It is in the same pile as Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, a strange juxtaposition to be sure. Warren’s book is listed much more unsurprisingly under SK, Hunting. The subheadings of Jacoby’s books are National parks and reserves—Social Aspects—United States; Nature conservation—Social aspects—United States; and National parks and reserves—History—United States. All well and good, but there is nothing in there about poaching per se, and I still do not see what horticulture and plant breeding have to do with anything. Warren’s book, on the other hand, is subcategorized under the very areas that Jacoby’s title advertises: Hunting—United States—History—20th century; Poaching—United States—History—20th century; Hunting customs—United States—History—20th century; Wildlife conservation—United States—History—20th century; and Wildlife management—United States—History—20th century. The two books do not share a single subject subheading; anyone wanting to read up on the history of poaching in America would have no way of connecting these two books except perhaps through a fortuitous keyword search on “poaching.” These are books that would seem to be of the same species, and yet taxonomists have found a way to put them in different cages even though they look alike. Then there are the books that have been placed within a single species despite looking very different from many of their fellows. Why are Perry Miller’s American studies classic Nature’s Nation and Shepard Krech III’s The Ecological Indian: Myth and History both listed simply under E, American History? What unseen phylogenetic link places Philip B. Mortenson’s This Is Not a Weasel: A Close Look at Nature’s Most Confusing Terms, Vera Norwood’s Made from this Earth: American Women and Nature, Richard W. Judd’s The Untilled Garden: Natural History and the Spirit of Conservation in America, 1740-1840, and Michael P. Branch’s anthology Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden together in the QH cage, Natural history—Biology? Why is not Branch’s book, say, listed under PS, American literature—where, incidentally, one finds Michael Bennett and David W. Teague’s edited essay collection The Nature of Cities: Ecocriticism and Urban Environments, most of which does not have directly to do with literature at all? I am sure that the Library of Congress taxonomists have good reasons for making the decisions they do, but the impression their work leaves seems to be one of disorder rather than order. Some classification decisions seem fairly arbitrary rather than rational and precise: you go to a cage expecting to find a particular book and it is not there. Organic linkages are cut off; an understanding of the ways that ideas about nature flow and interconnect, just as the components of what we tend to call the natural world flow and interconnect, are forestalled through the use of a perhaps overstrict classification. But, as a paratext, the CIP data is powerful nonetheless. Insofar as you can create something, give it a certain ontological reality, by naming and categorizing it, the CIP data ensures that a certain book exists, is “real,” in category A but does not exist, is invisible, in category B. As Genette comments, when one makes “forays into the area of generic or intellectual choices, the paratext that most typically derives from and depends on primarily the publisher [and/or, I would add, the cataloguer] obviously encroaches on the prerogatives of an author, who thought himself an essayist but ends up a sociologist, linguist, or literary theorist” (23). Nevertheless, any such choice becomes more or less “official,” in that the Library of Congress attributes a certain status to the text and “no reader can justifiably be unaware of or disregard this attribution, even if he does not feel bound to agree with it” (94). This may sound overly theoretical in a very French sort of way, but its truth becomes evident when, say, one is looking for a particular book in the course of doing one’s research. Subject headings and the attributions they assign can have real consequences in the ways in which they constrain the meaning, the ontological status, of a book. Imagine you are doing a search of your library’s online catalog and start with a certain book. By following links to related books, you can only find them if they have been shuffled into the same category; doing a standard search in this way, some books pop up and other related books remain invisible. You may well miss a very relevant text if it “means” the wrong thing. As I have said, nature does not work that way, even if the bibliographic menageries we call libraries do. As it is with taxonomies of books about nature, so it is with taxonomies of nature itself. Does a species belong in this pile or that pile? The history of biological taxonomizing demonstrates the same kinds of seemingly arbitrary decision-making and creation of officially-sanctioned “realities” as does the practice of assigning subject headings to books, implying similar ways of conceptualizing the world and the things in it. Accommodating ambiguity has not historically been a part of the program of the science of biological classification; in fact, quite the opposite. Prior to the eighteenth century, there was no commonly agreed-on system available for the European scientists to name and classify plants and animals. Different authors could (and did) give different names to the same plant, or mistake the male, female, and juvenile iterations of an animal for three different species. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus set out to change all that with his Systema naturae, the first edition of which appeared in 1735, a work in which he sought to bring order to what had been an extremely chaotic field, if it could even be called a field at all; Linnaeus might rightly be said to have invented the modern field of taxonomy, and we still use his binomial Latinate nomenclature in scientific discourse today. “The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves,” Linnaeus wrote. “This notion consists in having a true idea of the objects; objects are distinguished and known by classifying them methodically and giving them appropriate names. Therefore, classification and name-giving will be the foundation of our science” (qtd. in Farber 8–9). As a botanist, Linnaeus’s own first efforts were toward classifying plants into classes, orders, genera, and species, primarily according to their morphological similarities, particularly the number and position of their stamens (male parts) and pistils (female parts). This standard for classification was admittedly somewhat arbitrary—why reproductive organs and not some other basis for physical similarity?—but Linnaeus was using it as a first means in the service of an even larger project: an understanding of nature’s ultimate order. Notes historian of science Paul Lawrence Farber, “For Linnaeus the naming and ordering of the products of Creation linked the study of nature with the worship of God. Linnaeus’s conception of order reflected his vision of Creation as a balanced and harmonious system. Classification, he thought, could reflect that harmony” (11). The natural world was a complete, immutable, divinely sanctioned whole, a God-given puzzle to which Linnaeus believed he had discovered the key. This view was secularized by Linnaeus’s contemporary Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, often classified with Linnaeus as a co-founder of the science of natural history, and characterized the practice of biological taxonomy well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1857, noted Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz was able to write, with all the authority that his position enabled him to muster, that in describing the order of nature “the human mind is only translating into human language the Divine thoughts expressed in nature in living realities” (qtd. in Farber 54). Louis Agassiz, meet Charles Darwin. The theory of evolution by natural selection, as laid out in The Origin of Species (1859), undercut many of the ideas and assumptions that had been guiding naturalists from Linnaeus and Buffon to Agassiz. Darwin’s natural world was not a manifestation of divine order but rather a field of blind competition in which only the fittest survived. Change and adaptation over time was not directed by God but rather was left to chance. The origin and extinction of species in the past as revealed in the fossil record was not a matter of instances of “special creation” but rather a demonstration that species were not immutable but contingent, existing in time and changing their “nature” over time. As such, even the concept of “species” had to be rethought: a species was no longer an ideal type that manifested itself in individuals; rather, it was the individuals themselves as a group, existing and evolving over time and space, constantly changing in such a way as to render moot the very idea of an ideal or representative example of a species. Darwin himself wrote in Origin that “we shall have to treat species in the same manner as [earlier] naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience. This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species” (qtd. in Johnson 4). After Darwin, taxonomists have always had to accommodate the niggling suspicion that they may be making things up just as bibliographers do, inventing species according to the criteria that are ultimately arbitrary, drawing hard and fast distinctions where none exist given that there are no hard and fast distinctions in a natural world governed by evolution. You can tell that the issue remains unsettled: over the past few years, books have been published with querulous titles like Do Species Exist? Principles of Taxonomic Classification, by biologist Werner Kunz; Are Species Real? An Essay on the Metaphysics of Species, by philosopher Matthew H. Slater; and The Species Problem: Biological Species, Ontology, and the Metaphysics of Biology, by philosopher David N. Stamos. (Not to mention a book like John S. Wilkins’s Species: A History of the Idea; if an idea has a history, by definition that means that it has changed over time rather than having a single constant signification.) The basic question that theorists about species confront is, as Slater puts it, “In what sense are species real, genuine, left-alone features in the world—features of the world waiting to be discovered and understood?” (11). That is, can we consider what we might call “species realism” to be a tenable intellectual stance? Writers on this topic consistently remind us that, as Kunz puts it, “There is no agreement about what a species is, and there is no agreement about whether species are artificial constructs of our mind or whether they really exist” (15). (Slater’s own answer to his titular question, he confesses, is, in brief, “something along the lines of ‘yes and no’ or ‘it’s complicated’” .) Historically and in the present, there have been staunch adherents to each of the three primary species concepts that taxonomists tend to recognize: species as based on possessing common traits (the essentialistic or Linnaean approach, constant in time); species as defined by descent and evolutionary kinship (the post-Darwinian approach, vertical or diachronic in time); and species as groups of organisms connected by the ability to reproduce with each other (the populations approach, horizontal or synchronic in time). The problem with there being several understandings of species to choose from is that, as Kunz remarks, “This multiplicity demonstrates, above all else, that all of these concepts must be fictitious” (33). Stamos concurs, noting that “if species are not real, then much in biology would seem of a piece with storytelling, dealing largely with fictions” (4)—the question then becomes, what stories are being told, and to what end? In practice, it seems, biologists and taxonomists tend to operate pragmatically, choosing to follow those species concepts that most closely match their scientific world views or allow them to best pursue their research questions. As Wilkins puts it, “It is my belief that all biologists doing systematics will construct for themselves a conceptual sandwich out of these elements, one that suits the tastes required for studying the group of organisms they do” (xi–xii). The reality of a species concept, in other words, is a reality that we ourselves confer on it; as Slater says, “Species are real … not in virtue of there being particular sets or individuals in the world [that is, concrete and objective groups of like organisms], but in virtue of there being some organisms bearing certain objective properties and relations to one another that suit them to play characteristic roles in our epistemic practices …. Which properties we regard as saliently clustered, whether we regard their stability as sufficient to our epistemic purposes is up to us—different purposes and explanatory goals may well carve out different taxonomic divisions” (19–20). Philosophically, it seems, species are, if not defined arbitrarily, then at least constructed on an ad hoc basis to give us the answers we want—useful tools rather than objective facts. They are as illusory as are Library of Congress subject headings—categories that, as we have seen, collectively present a fragmented, contingent image of nature. CIP data serve to reproduce some key ways in which science, through the species concept and otherwise, has conventionally constructed the natural world; if we see nature in a certain way, it seems, we will organize our descriptors of it accordingly. Genres of Books: How Field Guides Do Not Look Like Nature The conventions of the different genres of books that purport to describe the natural world are, not surprisingly and despite appearances, as partial and incomplete as the system of subject headings that categorize them—after all, given the shakiness and contingency of the species concept, any kind of book that claims (or is granted) the authority to explain the objective order of the natural world is instantly unstable and scientifically suspect. One of the most familiar of books like these is probably Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Field guides are interesting subjects in print culture in and of themselves: as Thomas R. Dunlap describes them, “The field guide genre developed over the decades at the intersections of outdoor recreation, fine art, commercial art, science, and business, and its history tells us much about how Americans have used science to understand the world around them and how commercial realities have both enabled and restrained the passage of knowledge from small groups of scientists and enthusiasts to the general population” (3). One of those commercial realities is the fact of Peterson’s Guide dominating the market since the publication of its first edition in 1934, its success deriving from its highly visual approach, its emphasis on identifying distinguishing marks on birds of different species in the field, and thus its ease of use by the nation’s burgeoning numbers of amateur birdwatchers. My own ability to identify birds in the field being feebly developed at best, I routinely grab my Peterson Guide whenever I am sitting outside and some unfamiliar feathered critter attracts my attention. True, despite Peterson’s best intentions, it is always frustrating to have to page through large sections of the book to find the particular bird I am interested in—it looked like a finch, but which one? They basically all look alike!—but once I find it there is a satisfying feeling of certainty. If I were inclined to keep a life list—and Peterson conveniently provides one in the early pages of his book on which you can check off each of the birds he includes once you see it—I could triumphantly add another one to my collection. And I have always been somehow tickled by the fact that Peterson includes a section on “confusing fall warblers,” which tend to closely resemble each other during the autumn months. But if you can observe closely enough, and even though they resemble each other closely enough that a lay observer might wonder why they cannot be members of the same species, you can, in fact, tell an Oporornis agilus from an Oporornis philadelphia (250–1). In spite of the sense of classificatory certainty that it provides, though, the Peterson guide is rather problematically conceived and organized according to the perspectives provided by modern taxonomics. He, for instance, defines birds’ physical appearances not through photographs but through artistic renderings not of individuals but of idealized types: “A drawing can do much more than a photograph to emphasize the field marks. A photograph is a record of a fleeting instance; a drawing is a composite of the artist’s experience. The artist can edit out, show field marks to best advantage, and delete unnecessarily clutter” (9). Here Peterson defines species primarily by physical appearance or morphology, where you can identify members of a species because of certain necessary and sufficient material factors that they possess. This is a Linnaean, essentialistic definition of species—individuals are members because of essential qualities that they must have—which, as philosopher John Dupré argues, is an approach that is false to the way that what we call species actually exist in the world: individuals vary so much over time and space that it is impossible to idealize, to assume that all members of a species share, have shared, and will share some immutable characteristic. As Dupré notes, “it is very difficult to find really sharp distinctions anywhere in biology; generally, there is a range of intermediate cases. Certainly, as far as taxonomic distinctions are concerned, sharp boundaries are the exception rather than the rule” (66). Also, despite Peterson’s reliance on a strict and traditional Linnaean taxonomy, the way he organizes his book seems arbitrary—as, it seems, any such scheme for ordering nature must be. Basically he categorizes birds according to how they behave: the major sections of the Guide cover Ducks, Ducklike and Miscellaneous Swimming Birds; Seabirds, Gulls, etc. (Aerialists); Long-legged Wading Birds; Smaller Wading Birds; Fowl-like Birds; Birds of Prey; Nonpasserine Land Birds; Passerine (Perching) Birds; and Accidentals, Introduced Birds, and Escapes. Certainly a scheme based on birds’ “natural” behaviors in the wild seems to make sense, but it is by no means the only one that Peterson could have chosen. Indeed, to be more helpful to the ignorant reader who does not know much about birds (like me), it might have been better to divide them up according to the color, say, or size. They would be much easier to find that way. Once I observe that a bird is a perching bird I still have twenty-two different taxonomic families to plow through. And, of course, we cannot take Peterson’s Guide at face value as an objectification of scientific fact and order in and of itself, in addition to the specific critiques I have just enumerated about some of its elements. Like any book, and certainly any book that claims to describe and order the natural world, the Peterson Guide derives from underlying and unexamined assumptions about what “nature” actually is and how it actually works. Producers of field guides, that is, do not necessarily describe the structure of nature as they have discovered and observed it, but impose that structure onto a world that could potentially be ordered in any number of other ways. Most of all, argues Spencer Schaffner, “field guides are produced by and productive of singular, narrow, distinguishing, and decontextualizing ways of seeing, approaching, and thinking about the natural world,” and as such they enact and promote “a taxonomic, focused way of seeing and thinking about individual parts of ‘nature’ as disconnected from one another and from humans” (3)—as does, of course, the Library of Congress categorizing system as a whole. Certainly most popular field guides ignore ecological relationships in favor of taxonomizing strictly separated branches of various categories of the animal, the vegetable, and the mineral: they are more interested in the many things that nature is made of, not necessarily with how nature works. Moreover, the illustrations of the birds themselves give the impression of a nature that is fractured and disconnected, a collection of parts not yet put together into a system. Each specimen is drawn in spatial isolation, in some cases being granted a bit of branch to perch on, in other cases evidently swimming, although we do not see any water: the way we know that the swimming birds are swimming is that the bottoms of their bodies end in a straight line and they do not have legs. Often many species are shown on a single page, but these are not groupings that you would find in nature; rather, they provide comparisons of similar-looking, related species so that birdwatchers can more easily distinguish one from another. This arrangement is congenial to the goal of the amateur ornithologist, who is often out to collect prizes, individual bits of nature that can be added to a life list, but it also grows out of and perpetuates a view of nature as atomized, its bits separate and scattered, a world where chickadees do not sit on real, complete trees and mallards do not swim on real, complete lakes, and neither lives in a world where those trees and lakes—those habitats—have been altered by human activity. Such a view, argues Schaffner, “is not a lens that looks for commonality or connectedness between species, nor is it a way of seeing birds as enmeshed in environmental debates” (60). My 1980 edition of the Peterson bird guide tells me that the ivory-billed woodpecker is “Very close to extinction, if, indeed, it still exists” (188), but it does not tell me why. If “For more than a century field guides have been Americans’ commonest means of informal nature education” (3), as Dunlap puts it, the education they provide may be more of a hindrance than a help if we want readers to think more ecologically in addition to identifying birds, if we want to increase their concern for the health of the larger populations of birds whose individuals they seek out—and, of course, for the habitats that those birds (and those trees, and those lakes, and those birdwatchers) all live in together. Conclusion: Disorder in the Bibliographic Menagerie Thinking about simple but overlooked questions like why a book gets shelved in a certain place in the library, or how through its conventions a reference book might design rather than reflect a natural world, suggests a few ways in which the study of print culture might have larger implications for ecocriticism and environmentalism. The problematics of classification in either field also apply to the other and are mutually reinforcing; they both construct the natural world in similar ways. A book or an animal has to go someplace, but the place we assign to it is not the only, or even necessarily the best, location we can find for it within its relevant taxonomic scheme. Linnaean nomenclature and Library of Congress CIP data look precise and unassailable, but start poking around in them and it becomes clear that there is not necessarily any firm basis for their (at least implicit) claims to definitely order either the world of knowledge or the world of nature. Biological science and library science, it seems, have historically hewn to the same epistemology: scientists’ claims to knowledge and order have been similar to those of the people who have to categorize books about science—or the environment, or any other subject for that matter. Information scientist John M. Budd has noted the prevalence of “arguments within the LIS [Library and Information Science] literature in favor of viewing LIS as essentially the same as all of the physical sciences …. These ideas have to do with the fundamental conception of the universe and everything in it,” and “the prevailing influence is a manifestation of deterministic scientism” (115–16), which he defines as “a belief that knowledge growth in all disciplines depends on the application of the methods of natural science” (16). As such, Michael H. Harris argues “that the methodological procedures of natural science are applicable to library science; that quantitative measurement and numeration are intrinsic to the scientific method; that epistemological issues are best treated with respect to specific research questions; and that complex phenomena can best be understood by reducing them to their essential elements and examining the ways in which they interact …. The library (broadly defined) must be viewed as a complex of facts governed by general laws” (qtd. in Budd, 105)—a bibliographic ecosystem, if you will. The pitfall of this view, of course, is that if assumptions in the natural sciences do not work out, nor do assumptions in library and information science. We have seen that pitfall demonstrate itself over the course of this essay. If I want to understand the problems in classification that lead to there being twenty-eight piles of “nature books” on my floor, it helps to understand how the scientists who have studied nature have historically classified their own subject matter, the ambiguities inherent within that classification scheme, its shortfalls and omissions and revisions. And if I want to understand the historical problematics of biological taxonomy, or of probably any other classificatory system in any other field for that matter, a good place to start is with the books on my floor. Books about nature can tell us much about nature, and not only through their contents. Organizing a library and organizing an evolutionary line of descent, it turns out, ultimately derive from the same source: our desire to make sense of, to find order in, the worlds—of living things, of ideas—that we live in, however hazily we end up doing so. I have tried here, through discussing some extended examples, to suggest what an ecocritically oriented print culture studies might look like if we approached books as they exist, for example, physically, taxinomically, and generically (among other possible approaches). As physical objects, books have environmental implications in the process of their production and distribution, and through their paratextual statements of environmental responsibility publishers acknowledge this fact and reassure readers that they are trying to ameliorate it, a reassurance that can potentially color the experience of reading by easing potential concerns about the costs of consuming books. As classified members of bibliographic systems, books partake in the same conceptual shakiness that marks the definitions of the natural world that they often carry in their texts; paratextually, then, through their CIP data, books imply a view of the natural world that is atomized, fragmented, and only imperfectly (if confidently) understood. And certain genres of books purporting to describe nature, like field guides, can incorporate pernicious assumptions that only reinforce people’s misunderstandings of and disconnections from the natural world. This is not to say that these are the only kinds of findings that a “green” print culture studies would generate, of course: readings of different paratextual elements and different genres could discern other book-generated “natures” with other implications. But if ideas matter, then so too do the books in which we discover them, and as we read their front matter, look at their pictures, and locate them on library shelves, we encounter visions of nature that can reinforce—or, of course, challenge—the ideas that we find on their pages. Works Cited Budd John M. Knowledge and Knowing in Library and Information Science: A Philosophical Framework . Scarecrow, 2001. Dain Phyllis. “The Great Libraries.” A History of the Book in America, Volume Four: Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940 . Ed. Kaestle Carl F., Radway Janice A.. U of North Carolina P, 2009. 452– 70. Darnton Robert. “What Is the History of Books?” Reading in America: Literature and Social History . Ed. Davidson Cathy N.. Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 27– 52. Davidson Cathy N. “Introduction: Toward a History of Books and Readers.” Reading in America: Literature and Social History . Ed. Davidson Cathy N.. Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 1– 26. Dunlap Thomas R. In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders and Their Guides . Oxford UP, 2011. Dupré John. The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science . Harvard UP, 1993. Farber Paul Lawrence. Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E. O. Wilson . Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. Genette Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation . Cambridge UP, 1997. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Johnson Kristin. Ordering Life: Karl Jordan and the Naturalist Tradition . Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. Kunz Werner. Do Species Exist? Principles of Taxonomic Classification . Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Moylan Michele, Stiles Lane. “Introduction.” Reading Books: Essays on the Material Text and Literature in America . Ed. Michele Moylan, Lane Stiles., U of Massachusetts P, 1996. 1– 15. Murphy Priscilla Coit. “Books and the Media: The Silent Spring Debate.” A History of the Book in America, Volume Five: The Enduring Book: Print Culture in Postwar America . Ed. Nord David Paulet al. U of North Carolina P, 2009. 447– 58. Murphy Priscilla Coit. What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring . U of Massachusetts P, 2005. Peterson Roger Tory. A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Rosenberg Jane Aikin. The Nation’s Great Library: Herbert Putnam and the Library of Congress, 1899-1939 . U of Illinois P, 1993. Schaffner Spencer. Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides . U of Massachusetts P, 2011. Slater Matthew H. Are Species Real? An Essay on the Metaphysics of Species . Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Stamos David N. The Species Problem: Biological Species, Ontology, and the Metaphysics of Biology . Lexington, 2003. Wilkins John S. Species: A History of the Idea . U of California P, 2009. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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