How do YOU wear down a field guide?

I was flipping through a field guide this weekend, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the state of the thing. The cover is bent and coming loose in several places. Pages are stuck together, dogeared, ripped. Dirt splotches, bug guts, and sunscreen smears grace most of the pages. I have easily 20 different butterfly field guides, and at least 15 of those cover the area where I currently live, but I use this one almost exclusively. I’ve had it for about 10 years, and browsing through those pages tells a story of how I learned to ID butterflies, which species give me the most trouble, and which pages bring me the most joy.

Whenever I flip through any of my field guides I’m reminded of a quote from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In Chapter 22 Samuel goes to Adam’s house to help him choose names for his sons, and suggests that they take inspiration from the bible.
“…This one has been scraped and gnawed at,” he said. “I wonder what agonies have settled here. Give me a used Bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places that are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers. Liza wears a Bible down evenly. Here we are- this oldest story. If it troubles us it must be that we find the trouble in ourselves.”

I mentioned this to a friend who said she did the opposite- she quickly skipped over the parts of the bible that gave her trouble, because she didn’t like to think about those parts. But come to think of it, her herp field guide was really worn down in the tiny frog section…

I wish that 10 years ago I had bought 10 copies of this field guide, and used a different one each year. The first few years’ copies would certainly be worn down at the checkerspot section, as I learned to identify the species that formed the basis of my dissertation work. Three or four years in, the grass skippers’ pages would be ragged as I started a survey project in the Sutter Buttes, and couldn’t make heads or tails of the ‘sparrows of the butterfly world’. The years that we lived in Arizona would be worn down in lots of places- roadside skippers, metalmarks, the beautiful Lyside Sulfur, which I loved to just sit and gaze at- but this time the pages would hold less frustration, and more joy. By that time my identification skills had improved dramatically, and seeing a new species brought more pleasure than the vexation of those early years. I’m not sure what the wear pattern on this year’s field guide would look like- I suspect it would be much more even, like Liza’s Bible. This isn’t to say I have it all figured out now, but I’m familiar enough with most groups that my field guide perusals now mostly consist of a quick page-flip to double-check a host plant or confirm a range.

Someone I know very well wears down his field guide evenly by reading it cover to cover like a novel.  Now that I’ve gotten better at the process, I find myself doing something similar on occasion, although in my case I’m more likely to open at random and read for several minutes.  Or, now that I have a grasp of the things I’m likely to see, I have the luxury to look at and try to learn things that don’t typically live here, like the arctics and most of the wood-nymphs.

What about you? Do you wear down a field guide evenly, like Liza? Or does your field guide tell the story of your triumphs and confusion? Does it make a difference if the field guide is for your focal taxa vs. something you don’t study? I’d like to hear about it- leave a note in the comments. What does your field guide’s wear and tear say about you?

On second thought… the Coppers are getting worn down right now- I do wish some would turn up at my study sites…

7 thoughts on “How do YOU wear down a field guide?

  1. I still have my childhood copy of Klots, which I got about 1958. The cover has dehisced from the spine, but the binding is still sound. I got a second copy about 1980, which I keep at home. My personal copy of my own UC Press field guide is heavily annotated to facilitate a 2nd edition, if there ever is to be one. My Emmel and Emmel Butterflies of SoCal has lost both its covers, but is otherwise in good shape. By the way, I have a copy of the very first illustrated pocket butterfly guide ever, from England in (if I recall correctly) the 1860s. It’s in gorgeous condition. I found it at the famous, now-defunct antiquarian bookstore “Serendipity” in Berkeley–quite serendipitously, as it was in a lot the owner, Peter Howard, had just purchased from an estate and not sorted yet!


  2. I don’t know if mine actually show a pattern of wear. I hit certain sections of my Sibley guide depending on the season and how much I’m birding. And of course on how much ID trouble I’m having. For sure there are random bits of organic matter throughout, such as twigs, leaves, bird poop. Some of it intentional, some incidental. Most bird banders have their Pyle guides stained purple on the Swainson’s Thrush page thanks to the species’ knack of pooping while being held. To bring this to an end, just looking at a worn out guide brings back great memories of critters, plants, people, places that are wrapped into the guide’s history. Long live old field guides!


  3. For the record, the British book is W.S. Coleman, “British Butterflies,” published 1860, in a cheap paperback edition with uncolored plates (the one I have) and a more expensive hardbound one with color. The former was explicitly intended to be taken afield in the pocket and is, to my knowledge, the first such field guide to butterflies (or perhaps to anything!).


  4. I have a copy of the Peterson guide (Tilden and Smith [signed by Smith]) that was once owned by Oakley Shields. Prior to my acquisition it was in good shape, but now the pages are coming out. As you may be aware, many books are bound using glue. I believe that this glue has reached a weakened state and the interior pages are now becoming exterior pages. As I’m sure you know, the oldest continually practiced religion is Zoroastrianism. Founded approximately 3500 years ago, the practitioners of this religion likely did not use glue to bind their early writings. Therefore, the writings of this ancient religion have not come apart due to glue degradation. I also own a copy of Shapiro’s guide, but the inscription inside says that I should “not believe this bullshit” and so I don’t. Because I am a Bayesian, I place a strong prior on the degradation of glue leading to book disintegration. By not using the Shapiro guide, I am reducing the likelihood that this tome will lose pages. This guide is still in mint condition.


  5. I’m envious of those who have years or decades of field guide usage to look back through. I’m fascinated by what the physical conditions of our old books can tell us about our past. As a newcomer to natural history and field biology, I look forward to the day when my field bibles are as worn down as my old actual bible. My western USA field guide looks almost brand new, while my eastern USA field guides have had far more use simply because I’ve lived here longer. And I seem to be wearing it down preferentially by interest level: amphibians are well worn, followed by turtles because who doesn’t like turtles. Lizards, however, have hardly been touched. 🙂


  6. I’m very new to enjoying butterflies on a more than “casual” basis. (As most folks, I’ve always gotten so much joy from seeing butterflies fluttering about but never stopped to think about what kind of butterfly I saw or why it was in the same neighborhood as I.) Recently, I started participating in the ButterflySCAN project of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. I was blessed to have the opportunity to participate in the ButterflySCAN orientation/training session with Dr. Elizabeth Long. The reason I decided to participate in this project is because I attended a lecture about butterfly mimicry given by Dr. Long at the NHM a couple of months prior.

    After the brief orientation, we were all sent out to do our best to observe butterflies. I was VERY intimidated! I had no confidence that I’d be able to identify any of the butterflies I would see. So, I quickly went to my local library and checked out three (!) butterfly field guides. They were very helpful, and I think I was able to accurately identify most of the butterflies that I saw during my ButterflySCAN outings. (The ones that I couldn’t identify, I sent to Dr. Long, and she was able to figure out what butterflies I had observed.)

    Based on Dr. Long’s suggestions, I decided to buy my own field guide, and ended up getting the Kaufman “Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.” I really like this guide because it provides wonderful illustrations and information, including maps of the regions where butterflies live. Now that I’ve had my field guide for about 1 1/2 months, it’s still in pretty good shape, but the corners of the soft cover are already all bent due to being jammed into the pockets of the field vest I wear when I go “butterflying.” The pages still look fine, but I have quite a few little bookmarks that I’ve place into the pages of the most common butterflies I see. I’ve become such a big fan of lepidopterans that I suspect that one day, my field guide might also become dogeared and splotched and smudged. (I can only be so lucky… right!?!)


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