Reading Like a Positivist

Ever stop to think about just how you read your bird books?

Lately I’ve been reading all the published works of Louis Pierre Vieillot.


That’s exactly the point of my plowing through the old books: to bestow on Vieillot the fame history has cheated him of.

At this early stage in the project, it’s a very different sort of reading I’m engaged in. I’m not learning much about birds, but I am learning, bit by painfully excavated bit, something about Vieillot’s life.

That’s a misuse, an abuse, even, of a text, the unpardonable sin of biographism. But it’s worth it, isn’t it, to learn, for example, that Vieillot was afloat on the North Atlantic at the latitude of Nova Scotia one August — August of a year I have yet to determine. And to discover that his may be the earliest record of cave swallows from northeastern North America, when

several of these birds landed in the rigging of the ship I was on.

Maybe the whole story of Vieillot’s life is still waiting for me in an archive in Rouen or Paris. But if not, I’ll keep reading like a positivist.

Petrochelidon fulva 1894.jpg
Petrochelidon fulva 1894” by Richard Bowdler SharpeA monograph of the Hirundinidae. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.