Yesterday, on the way back to the office from an interview from the Field Museum, I got an overwhelming desire to check out Sibley's Guide to Birds from the library. Why? It was some combination of having been at the museum and talking about the depiction of natural life; having a kid and pointing out birds to her and having nostalgia for wearing out my Peterson guide as a child; and my occasional testing of the CPL to see if it can cater to my every immediate whim. (It did, as it usually does.)

I'd also just wanted to see what the fuss was about. David Allen Sibley, the son of a famous ornithologist and a self-taught painter, has sold 1.75 million copies of his nature guides, so the release of the second edition of his birding guide was an honest-to-goodness event in publishing.

In part, it's a recognition of an exceptional product of labor: some seven thousand carefully observed paintings of birds. But Sibley's work represents something curious about the practice of birdwatching, and of looking, registering, and remembering (emphasis mine):

Mr. Sibley's birds aren't the most lifelike—the realistic artwork in National Geographic's field guide fills that niche—but instead demonstrate the most essential traits of a species.

"Sibley's achievement has been to draw birds not as they are but as they appear to the birder trying to identify them," novelist Jonathan Franzen, an avid birder, wrote in an email. "They're brilliant drawings of ideas, of what the birder needs to be seeing."


Photographs are a less effective method for identifying birds, some birders say, because the circumstances aren't uniform—the lighting, the weather and the bird's mood are too hard to control. Mr. Sibley's guide strips out most everything but a spare branch or pine needle.

After securing Sibley's Guide to Birds, I came back to the office to find a dispatch from another effective whim-catering machine, Alexis Madrigal's wonderful "tiny newsletter" Five Intriguing Things. In another episode of it doing what it says on the box, it gave me a bunch of vintage linen postcards, from the Tichnor Brothers Collection at the Boston Public Library, in one of those pleasant convergences you don't see coming.

They're much different from the postcards we see today, and from the vintage photos that detail so much of the city as it was—produced between 1930 and 1945, they depict the city not so much as it was, but how one might see it, and remember it, a dispatch not so much from the city as from the visitor within the city.