We love to read, but since opening a bricks and mortar store, the owner’s reading consists of several paragraphs at bedtime just before falling asleep. She no longer has the energy to sit leisurely in a chair reading for hours with nothing else on her mind. She comes home at the end of her day with just enough energy to cook dinner. She hates that part of running the store.
But here she is on a different book, one that did not put her to sleep:
Recently I wanted to read a summer page-turner, a book so engrossing that I would sit in a chair and read until I finished it. In the past those books have been the occasional well-written mystery or the dying-a-hideous-death-mountain-climbing on-Everest book.
This summer’s page-turner turned out to be a birding book, Life List by Olivia Gentile. I read it in one sitting and loved every moment. It was as good as going birding.
I love birds, of course, so I might be biased; but this book, about birds, birding, and obsession, really is a page-turner.
It chronicles the life of Phoebe Snetsinger. Snetsinger was a 1950’s housewife (the same vintage as my mother) who felt trapped in her life as a wife and mother. Her introduction to birds was a revelation and she became obsessed. In her late 40’s she was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and given only a year to live. She decided to spend her time seeing as many birds as possible. (We call these people “listers”. Listers keep track of the number of birds they see.) Phoebe had a list of more than 8400 bird species before she died. (Almost twenty years after the diagnosis and grim prognosis and it wasn’t the cancer that killed her, it was a car wreck.) Seeing that many birds requires often dangerous travel to remote parts of the world. At the time of her death she had seen 84% of the world’s bird species.
As far as anyone knows, that is the record.
Phoebe Snetsinger would never have won the wife or the mother of the year awards. Was she too independent to have been a “good” wife or mother? Did obsessions run in the family? Was it the one-year death sentence when she was only in her 40s?
Or maybe it was just the birds.
Olivia Gentile reports the details of Phoebe’s life as a journalist should—without judgment. Gentile examines all facets of Phoebe’s life—as daughter, wife, mother, cancer-survivor and obsessive and loving birder. It is clear that watching and searching for yet another bird for her list kept Phoebe alive. She shared her love of birds with her traveling companions and inspired others whom she met along the way.
I don’t aspire to be a lister, but I do know that my love of birds is one of the greatest joys of my life. Watching birds brings me into the moment, those moments when life’s petty little problems disappear. Life List chronicles those moments in the life of a great birder and is a fine read for a summer’s day.
We have the book online and at the store. So do the big book stores and Amazon but, as always, we encourage you to find a small, locally-owned book store and buy it from them.
Ms. Snetsinger wrote her own book, which we don’t have but can get for you, Birding on Borrowed Time, published posthumously by the American Birding Association in 2003. For another book about life-list obsessions, you might enjoy, To See Every Bird on Earth by Dan Koeppel.
The photograph of the Red-shouldered Vanga was made by Mike Danzenbaker, that of the Blackburnian Warbler by a wikipedia user who identifies him or herself only as “mdf.”
For more on Olivia Gentile, here is her website. (Warning: It opens with sound.)