Bolinas Reads: October 2019

drawing of Steve Howell by Vanessa Waring
drawing of Steve Howell by Vanessa Waring

A monthly interview with Bolinas Library readers.

Steve Howell has described himself as follows: Originally from Wales, in the so-called United Kingdom, Steve Howell has lived in Bolinas for about 35 years, in between traveling around the world to study birds. He has been birding for as long as he can remember, which of course may simply mean that his memory isn’t very good... Over the years, Steve has written, co-authored, and illustrated numerous books, ranging from the magnum opus 850-page A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, opens a new window (Oxford University Press, 1995, and a mere 14 years of his life with artist Sophie Webb) to more fun things like The Amazing World of Flyingfish, opens a new window (Princeton University Press, 2014) and the recently published Oceanic Birds of the World: A Photo Guide , opens a new window(Princeton University Press, 2019, with co-author Kirk Zufelt). Other recent books include Rare Birds of North America, opens a new window (Princeton University Press, 2014, co-authored with Will Russell and Ian Lewington) , and the Peterson Guide to Bird Identification—In 12 Steps, opens a new window (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018; co-authored with Brian Sullivan). Steve’s travels have taken him to all continents and all oceans, but he still enjoys wandering around Bolinas and watching the local birds.

What are you reading now? What’s in your pile of books? Do you read one book at a time or several?

I try to have several books on hand, although usually one dominates my time, especially if it’s a page-turner. I’m currently reading Don Winslow’s The Cartel , opens a new windowtrilogy and have just finished a book everyone should read, by Tom Phillips, entitled Humans: A Brief History of How We F**ked It All Up, opens a new window—which shows in an entertaining way that humans today are not unique in their stupidity, short-sightedness, and sheer denial about the present and future. Rather, we’re just the latest crop of delusional idiots that have somehow continued to survive 🙂 Other books in the pile are Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth , opens a new window(book 2 in the Book of Dust , opens a new windowtrilogy), and Prisoners of Geography, opens a new window by Tim Marshall, and who knows what else will come along.

Do you like to read paper or ebooks? Audio books?

I do so much ‘computer reading’ for my professional life that I only read ‘real books’ when not working.

How do you find the books you want to read?

Mostly by recommendations from friends and people I meet on my travels. It’s particularly nice to find good character development in a long series that can take months to read and obviate the need to wonder what next to find. Sometimes, though, I run out of reading matter and am stuck without ideas, but a browse of recent titles in the library usually produces something to feed the addiction.

Do you have a favorite genre? Any genres that you never read?

I read almost anything, assuming it is well written. But I read so much science and the like for work that for escape I read mainly fiction, either quick-and-dirty ‘plane reading’ on travel days or more ‘serious’ books that take a few days, or even weeks. Hence, historical fiction, some fantasy fiction (such as The Wheel of Time, opens a new window series, by Robert Jordan), and crime thrillers (among which Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, opens a new window series and Michael Connelly’s Detective Harry Bosch, opens a new window series are stand-outs). I haven’t read any autobiographies or books on current events and politics and doubt that I will. I also enjoy non-fiction, mainly popular science and discourses on broader topics, such as the brilliant writings on various forms of cognition by Oliver Sacks (his Seeing Voices, opens a new window is a classic) and ‘light reading’ such as The Meaning of Human Existence, opens a new window, by E. O. Wilson.

What was your reading experience as a child? Did you grow up with a lot of books? A favorite book?

My father was a Fleet Street journalist before he lost faith in the objectivity of the media and moved on to other things, and both of my parents were addicted to reading. Thus the family house was packed full of books and as a child I devoured books (many from the village library, but I also had my own bookshelves). I have no recollection of any favorites beyond classics like The Hobbit, opens a new window,, opens a new window which I do remember soon became too scary for me the first time I tried reading it!

Were there any books that made a big impression on you in your life?

One Hundred Years of Solitude, opens a new window (Gabriel García Márquez) and Finnegans Wake, opens a new window (James Joyce) were notable for revealing different ways of writing beyond all that ‘correct stuff’ one is taught in High School. After years of backpack traveling in Latin America I read Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, opens a new window, which I really related to. Peter was also a birder, and I guided him on one of his book-signing visits to Marin County and learned that the inspiration for that book came from travels like mine—first-hand experience, especially at an impressionable age, stamps authenticity on writing.

Is there a famous author that you ever wanted to meet? Maybe back in time?

Perhaps Charles Dickens, opens a new window, whose ability to create credible characters and plots greatly helped bring the joy of reading to many ‘ordinary’ people rather than the reading of books being something for the elite.

What’s the last great book that you read and recommended to a friend?

A couple of ‘books’ come to mind: The Clifton Chronicles, opens a new window (all seven of them!) by Jeffrey Archer, and The Century Trilogy , opens a new windowby Ken Follett. Both authors are storytelling masters, in the tradition of Dickens, whose real-life heroes, villains, and interwoven plots make you laugh out loud and cry.

What do you plan to read next? Do you plan?

On request at the Bolinas library is Subliminal: How Your Subconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, opens a new window by Leonard Mlodinow, and I’m always hoping for good recommendations.

Is there a book that you always meant to read but still haven’t? Any highly rated books that you thought were over rated?

Nothing comes to mind for books I’ve meant to read, although a few years ago I did finally get around to reading Moby Dick, opens a new window—it was a hard slog with so much archaic English, but fascinating to see how the language has evolved since then. There are several authors or books I think are over rated, but that’s all a matter of taste, like good wines being wines you like rather than what ‘experts’ tell you is good or bad. Some authors seemingly like to write solely to show how erudite they are, over-adjectivizing every expletive-deleted sentence and never having metaphor they didn’t like. Others pump out tens of formulaic books that aren’t ‘bad’ per se but lack depth. Millions of readers seem to like both extremes but neither does much for me.

What books do you return to? Are there any books you like to re-read?

One of the great things about getting older is that memory doesn’t improve with age, which allows one to derive pleasure from re-reading great books from years ago. For the most part, though, I find new books to read, although for a time every few years I used to re-read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, opens a new window, by Douglas Adams—maybe it’s time to dig it out again.

Do you have a collection of books at home?

I have too many work-related bird books, which leave little room for anything else, although one bookcase is devoted to non-work books, some of which I may re-read someday, or which are great to pass on to friends.

What kind of characters draw you in as a reader?

I’m not sure that characters draw me in as much as stories and styles of writing, although obviously these are often linked. As a writer of non-fiction, much of which could be defensibly defined as ‘boring’ or at least specialized and semi-technical, I’m always curious to see how some writers can draw you in easily to a book, often within the first page or two (such as Lee Child, opens a new window), whereas others can’t do it after a few chapters.

When and where do you like to read? Describe your ideal reading experience.

I’ll read anywhere and anytime, but ideally a quiet place, a glass of good tequila, a piece of dark chocolate, and somewhere comfortable to sit make the ideal setting.

Why Read?

Why breathe? A life without reading would surely be no life at all, be it reading for education, information, or an all-too-increasingly-needed escape from the world we live in. Words and written language are arguably the greatest invention of the human species, yet we take them for granted. But think about it: How do a bunch of codified lines and scrawls on a piece of paper (or on a computer screen) have the ability to convey so much information, to fire our imaginations, to stir our minds and our souls, to help us escape or ensnare us, to delight or scare us—it’s a miracle.