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the authentic animal

1 december 2011

I get into stretches where I really read a lot of very good books, and this is one of them. Molly Birnbaum's Season to Taste is excellent, and I enjoyed re-reading The Razor's Edge enormously. And then something completely different, Dave Madden's Authentic Animal, caught my eye at the public library, and turned out to be compelling. Not everyone would see a book about taxidermy and say "that's my holiday weekend reading right there!" Far fewer still would think it a good idea to write such a book. Congratulations to Dave Madden for following his obsessions.

Madden packs a large number of observations about taxidermy into a spare 261 pages. He watches professional and amateur taxidermists at work. He visits museums, demos, competitions, and trade shows. He looks at taxidermic history and technology; he studies novelty taxidermy (the jackalope) and taxidermy inside out (the "Bodies" exhibits that have taken over museum floors worldwide). He's interested in animal rights, the theory of collecting, and hunting. And he hangs the book on a critical reconstruction of the biography of Carl Akeley, the greatest of all taxidermists – while reflecting on the oddity that Akeley's work is more inspiration than achievement. Only a small percentage of the displays the American Museum of Natural History's classic Akeley Hall of African Mammals were mounted by Akeley, but the concept of a majestic ensemble of dynamic dioramas was his – if not originally and theoretically his, then specifically and in terms of its content. The AMNH remains true to Akeley's conception, and the Akeley Hall remains a great pilgrimage site for museum-lovers. And the life story of the man who inspired it is truly strange.

Madden writes a hip, mannered prose. By turns he reminded me of Tony Horwitz (travels among the conservative fringe), Stephen Jay Gould (let's take another look at old scientific texts, maybe they weren't as dumb as they look), Mary Roach (wanna know some mind-blowing facts about gross stuff?), David Sedaris (just my luck to have landed on this crazy planet), and cracked.com. Madden is an academic writing about extremely non-academic topics. There's a cultural-studies way to write about these topics (and academics like Donna Haraway and Jane Tompkins have done so); Madden knows that cultural-studies idiom and knows that it won't get much farther than certain wings of certain English departments. He makes fun of that idiom at times, as when he imagines an innocent female taxidermist suddenly breaking into language worthy of Judith Butler (58). Such prose, much less its more reflexive instances, is not for every reader. But I love it. After a couple of chapters I realized that Madden writes a little like me. I reveled in that discovery (though I can't imagine he's ever read a word I've written). And of course I deeply hate him for it :)

I'll use the next two paragraphs to go "meta" for a moment. I complain a lot here about being suckered into reading "interview-driven" non-fiction books. You know the kind I mean. Paper Clip: How a Twisty Few Inches of Metal Created the Modern Office. I get the book home and the first chapter is an interview with a paperclip executive, and the second is a few beers with the folks from the paperclip factory shopfloor, and the third is a wacky story about traveling to Pocatello to meet the world's most avid paperclip collector, and I can't stand reading the fourth. Along the way we get the author's confessions about making paperclip chains in grade school. I sometimes complain about such books en masse, but I should really just conclude that there are good ones and bad ones.

The bad examples seem phoned in. The author seems to be on assignment from the editor of Paperclip Trade Monthly, and is spinning an article into a quick book for a quick buck. The good, even great examples, like The Authentic Animal, arise organically out of the need to see and learn. And (perhaps more illustrative of my tastes than of an absolute quality distinction), the good examples are as text-based as they are people-based. Too often a writer will just travel around asking people stuff, accumulating receipts for tax deductions and a voice recorder full of verbiage. Writers like Dave Madden travel and ask, but they independently learn what's going on. They read copiously, and (Madden is especially good at this) they critique what they've read instead of just patchwriting it into "their own words." And they are self-conscious in a good way, not just marveling at the adventure they're having on the road, but wondering (again, as Madden does so well) why the heck they are interested in whatever weird book topic they've become interested in.

Madden, Dave. The Authentic Animal: Inside the odd and obsessive world of taxidermy. New York: St. Martin's, 2011.