Sentences — January 30, 2009, 2:46 pm

Weekend Read: “Killed in the Chase”

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A few weeks ago on a Sunday I was driving across Vermont in a snowstorm and passed a used–pardon me, antiquarian–bookstore. That latter designation, of course, indicates danger: it means the things that you might be inclined to buy inside are likely priced beyond what one can bear to pay–say, a slight paperback on Southwestern flora, color plates, fun to hold but at $80 more fun to put back on the shelf. And the fine, large bound leather volumes made that look like a pittance.

There was a second floor, though. Second floors are always cause for hope. There might be dusty corners. Upstairs were the homelier volumes of fiction and poetry. Lots of good stuff in the $3-$5 range, first editions of favorites that make good gifts. Nicest, though, was on the way downstairs again–an as yet unseen pile of fat brown clumsy crumbling numbered tomes. “HARPER’S MAGAZINE–$15, each.”

Bound omnibus library volumes, each contained six months of the magazine. Of the dozen, I picked and left with chubby Vol. X, 864 pages, December, 1854 to May, 1855. Of course, subscribers to the magazine will have noticed that these issues are already on the web to read. And yet, I confess to having found some things, flipping through and surveying the engravings in my chunky Volume X, that I wouldn’t otherwise have found. A long essay on “The Rattlesnake and its Congeners” (“Of all animal life, the serpent at first sight, is the most repulsive”) is fine nighttime companionship, and while an essay about man’s best friend (“The Dog, Described and Illustrated”) which begins…

It would seem to be the beneficent order of Providence, that man should be surrounded with inferior animals under his control, which by their capacities, make up for the defects of his physical power,

…is irresistible. My favorite in that span of months, surely, is “The Lion and His Kind.” While this preference has, I’m sure, everything to do my recent consumption of David Attenborough’s The Life of Mammals, the pleasures of this comparatively crude print forbear are manifest. It’s all about guile, it’s lack:

Until within a few years past, very little has been known of the history and habits of the most notable members of the feline family. Every thing relating to the tiger—except as an animal killed in the chase, or as a captive—is still unreliable.

Unreliable? God, yes. For to read on is learn delicious (and dubious) facts about the Ocelot, the Caracal, the Lynx and a mysterious creature called the Ounce. Pure delight, particularly for readers who loved Jay Kirk’s more recent feline investigations for this magazine. Roar through “The Lion and His Kind,” as your weekend read.

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