On the Shelf: Eric Wagner

This week’s missive on recommended reading and culture comes courtesy of Eric Wagner, whose exploration of the astonishing world of zoomusicology appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Orion. For more on the musical skill of magpies and thrushes and blackbirds, and to learn about the work of Emily Doolittle, mentioned below, read Eric’s essay “The Piccolo and the Pocket Grouse.”


I am a flighty reader, prone to starting a book, reading a few dozen pages or so, putting it down, letting it gather dust for weeks or months, feeling guilty about abandoning it, picking it up again (or not—sometimes I just stop at guilt). What follows are a few books that have recently compelled me to their ends.

Stoner, by John Williams. William Stoner is a medievalist toiling away in relative obscurity at a college in Missouri. I realize that may not sound terribly appealing; it didn’t to me when I first heard about it. But then I read it, and found it a novel of such subtlety and precision and grace that sometimes, in the middle of a page, I would forget I was reading it, so lost was I in its world.

The Lost Wolves of Japan, by Brett Walker. I spend a good deal of my days reading depressing news about the environment, so I was initially reluctant to pick up this history of wolf extermination in Japan by Brett Walker, a professor of history at Montana State University. And make no mistake, the tale of how wolves went from revered to reviled in a rather short time is quite depressing, but in Walker’s sure hands the dismay is alleviated. Somewhat.

Madness, Rack, and Honey, by Mary Ruefle. This is a collection of lectures Ruefle gave to a graduate poetry class over the course of fifteen years. I’m a sucker for essays written by poets. Perhaps it’s because I feel like a poet is more likely to approach the essay from the standpoint of language, rather than structure, or at least give the two more equal footing? I don’t know. No doubt that is a gross overgeneralization; it may not even be true. Whatever the case, these are wonderful essays.

Lastly, two wishes:

First, I wish I lived in Monterey, California, if only from now until Labor Day, so I could spend my every waking moment at Bryant Austin’s “Beautiful Whale” exhibit, currently showing at the Museum of Monterey.

Second, I just attended a concert of Emily Doolittle’s chamber music, and while it was wonderful, I wish it had been scheduled several months ago, before I set out to write about zoomusicology, if for no other reason than so I could have read the program notes for “Music for Magpies” and seen that the snike and the pocket grouse do not actually exist, and thus spared myself some embarrassment.

Eric Wagner lives in Seattle, with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Scientific American, and Smithsonian.