Literacy—the production, distribution, and reception of written texts—is so much a part of our daily lives that we sometimes forget it has a history. In fact, though, literacy has changed constantly and massively over the five millennia or so we’ve been at it. Whenever new media have supplanted old, the way we present material—and what material we adjudge worth presenting—has necessarily shifted, too. But not always at the same time. As the codex replaced the scroll, as the print took over from the manuscript, and now as digital forms push aside the bound book, there has been an inevitable leapfrogging lag between content and the technologies for their communication. And we all know what happens when you pour new wine into old wineskins.
The newest brew from the birder’s vineyard is Richard Crossley’s The Crossley ID Guide, an impressive work by any standard. There are more than 10,000 (!) photographs of well over 600 species; perhaps the greatest accomplishment here is just how many of those birds are depicted in flight. Though the guide covers only the “eastern” states and provinces, it includes a great many more typically western species, too, among them the specialties of the Black Hills and Pine Ridge, which are given short shrift (if any shrift at all!) in competing titles. Crossley’s texts—both the brief species accounts and the prose introductions to larger groups—are engaging and accurate, and the half dozen pages “How to Be a Better Birder” will encourage beginners and many, many others to start looking at birds in fresh new ways.
This wealth of information, verbal and visual, should make The Crossley ID Guide absolutely essential to any birder’s bookshelf. But ay, there’s the rub. This is most emphatically not a work for the bookcase, at least not for any real live boards-and-pins bookcase.
Crossley has indeed provided us with an excitingly new concept for the bird guide (“revolutionary,” even, to use the breathless language of the jacket blurb)—but that concept far exceeds the potentials of the printed book as they have developed over the last nearly six hundred years. What we have here is in fact a series of printed and bound screen shots for what could have been and should have been (and might still be?) the first true electronic guide to the identification of North American birds.
To put it simply and bluntly, everything that is right with this guide as published would be even righter in digital form, and everything that is wrong with it would vanish. Take, for example, the images, the heart of Crossley’s guide (the first four words of his introduction? “I don’t like text”!). Sixteen pages at the front of the book are devoted to small photos of nearly every species in the book. The intention is that most birds will be identifiable with reference only to these images, but unfortunately, they are reproduced to scale, making the small rails and the stints and some owls and many passerines not just undiagnosable but invisible on the printed page.
In the genuine e-guide that this should be, clicking on the smudge of a Semipalmated Sandpiper would “zoom” you to a full-screen portrait; another click would take you to the complete species plate, which features birds of all age and sex classes, perched and in flight, close at hand and far away, awake and asleep. “Hover” over the long-billed juvenile in the middle background, and a text could appear reminding you of the similarity between this species and Western Sandpiper. Click on the words “Western Sandpiper” (no need in a genuine e-book to save space with those annoying four-letter codes), and your screen splits to show you the plate for that species right next to the one you were looking at. Move your cursor to an open bill and you hear the flight call of a single bird; hover over the flock in the background and the guide plays the chatter of a loafing mass of peep.
All of the shortcomings of the printed plates—and there are not a few, unfortunately—could easily be overcome in a digital guide. Many, even most of the plates in my review copy are badly printed, with a focus so soft as to be blurry (not for a moment do I buy the notion that that fuzziness is meant as “realism”). Even the best plates have birds that are literally too small for me to see: unlike the fuzziness, that is intentional, an effort to replicate field conditions, but in a true e-guide, I could click and enlarge even the tiniest to see detail and difference.
I could brighten the dim views of the nightjars, and I could look at birds within or without the habitat backgrounds that are so welcome an innovation here (but how’d that Ladder-backed Woodpecker get into a palmetto thicket?). And there would be no need to squeeze the rarest birds—in many cases the most interesting birds—three or four to a printed page.
Richard Crossley may not “like text,” but what his new guide offers is without exception useful and fascinating—and would be even more so as a digital publication. The extensive introductory material could even be presented as video, and by allowing the identification notes to float over the images, they could be expanded virtually infinitely; indeed, the selection of pages on Crossley’s website already gives a very basic sense of how such annotation would work. And, as should go almost without saying, the text’s errors, infelicities, and inconsistencies could be corrected more or less continuously, rather than forcing the reader to hope for a better editorial effort in the next printing.
Note well that what I am describing is a genuine electronic book, not just another of the “apps” that are being sold with such success to a gullible birding public. A digital Sibley or National Geographic is really just a set of book pages on a screen, with the addition of a little sound; the final product carries over many of the disadvantages of the codex at the same time as it sheds the printed book’s many advantages, the equivalent of pouring old wine into hastily stitched wineskins.
What is so exciting about the new Crossley guide is that all of the material is already there, just itching to get out from between those so inflexible flexible covers and into a medium that will do it justice.