I collect books about hunting and fishing from the 50s, 60s and early 70s. In them I see the images and hear the voices that taught my father to hunt and fish, to be outside in pursuit of something, and I hear strains of how he taught me: this is a personal obsession much more than an academic one. Still, I love titles like Why Fish Bite and Why They Don’t (1961), and Game Cookery (1967). I love the examples of some of the first mass printing of color photography, and captions that read “A quiet afternoon on the lake is the best way to enjoy the Great Outdoors.” I love the authoritative voices of the authors detailing the best way to build a duck blind, or how to tie an Improved Clinch Knot.
These books were produced as Modernity was making its last stand in the American Academy, in the years leading up to, and just through, the succession of Postmodern intellectuals and the seismic cultural shifts that have followed. Those shifts are visible now in the ways we talk about conservation of natural resources, sportsman and environmental ethics, and generally, what going into the wild to catch and kill and eat means.
The books I collect are just another lens for me to look at these things when I can’t stomach another Cormac McCarthy novel or blog post about evangelism in our Postmodern world today. We haven’t improved the Improved Clinch Knot, but we think we’ve bettered the way we teach and talk about everything. Isn’t it good, we say, that we aren’t pretending things are so simple, so black and white as the photos in my books? Knowing what is true, teaching what is true, isn’t simple because it means a doing and experiencing to know Truth. Eventually that will mean some kind of bloody engagement with what has been made, the world we have to live in.
Yesterday I found a two-page spread describing, with small grainy photos, how to fillet a fish with seven strokes of a sharp 10 inch knife. Where are you going to look? How are you going to learn?