A Gray’s Library (I)

A Gray’s library of shooting, and stuff that shooters should ponder. From hunting man-eating tigers to dropping pen-raised quail, there is an ethical side to hunting that we ignore only at our peril. Each of these books includes more than a little ethical reflection, but as Ruark said of the Old Man, “mostly he ain’t painful with it.”

by Terry Wieland

From time to time, I’ll get a letter or, more usually these days, an email, from a Gray’s reader asking what books I like.  Sometimes it’s couched in terms of the mythical desert island — you’re marooned, you can have three books (or six, or ten), and what would they be?  Other times, it’s a Christmas gift or a book for a nephew who’s mad about hunting.

The shooting world is blessed in that, over the course of centuries — literally — we have amassed a library of literature that would fill several good-sized buildings.  Some of these books are classics, almost on a par with The Odyssey; others are vanity publications of such crushing tedium you wonder at the author’s intellect.

There is a sizable collection dealing with the American West, especially mountain men and the buffalo hunters.  Across the pond, the Brits wrote about India primarily, Africa secondarily, and Canada and Australia in dribbles, but it all adds up to an Everest of books.  That was big game, of course; there is a K2 of books on driven shooting, game rearing, and shotguns generally.  To past generations of Englishmen, shooting driven birds was a religion at least on a level with the Anglican Church.

Where, then, to start?  For the better part of 60 years, I’ve read recommendations for everything from Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches to William Faulkner’s The Bear to Theodore Roosevelt’s African Game Trails.  While all of these have their points — not a big fan of The Bear, thank you — as do various volumes of Hemingway, snippets of Tolstoy, and even Thomas Hardy, they are hardly what I’d choose to pry a nephew’s thumbs away from his iPhone, or intrigue a loved one.

What follows are a few recommendations of books that can be read by anyone, of any age, and actually, regardless of how they feel about hunting and shooting.  If you’re trying to encourage reading, they’ll do that; if you want to change someone’s mind, they’ll do that, too.

The first on the list is one of the all-time classics of hunting literature:  Man-Eaters of Kumaon, by Jim Corbett.  Corbett was a renowned hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards in the foothills of the Himalayas, in India’s United Provinces, during the first half of the last century.  He killed his first man-eater in 1907, his last in 1938, and today there is a national park in India bearing his name.  Corbett was not only a superbly skilled woodsmen, he was a man of immutable courage and a level of ethics most of us can only marvel at.  He was also a dedicated conservationist, and his name is now attached to several tiger-conservation efforts.

This was his first major book, written while convalescing from malaria in 1944; it was published by Oxford University, picked up by the Book of the Month Club in 1954, and became a world-wide best seller.  He followed it up with four other books, two on hunting man-eaters, one of jungle lore, and one simply called My India.  Most people who read the first then go looking for the others.

While we’re on the subject of India, and the place of the British in the subcontinent, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim would be on my desert-island short list.  John Masters, Gurkha officer and novelist, called it the best book ever written about India.  It is devoid of racial moralizing, colonial self-flagellation, or anything else that would get in the way of a story that shows, on every page, how much Kipling loved India.  He loved the people, the dust, the flies, the temples, the beggars, the holy men, the curry, the chupatis scorched on an open fire, the Brits who went native and the Brits who did not.

I first read Kim when I was eight (a Classics comic book) then found it in hardcover.  I now read it every three or four years, enjoying it a little more each time.  Between them, Kim and Man-Eaters of Kumaon give a vivid picture of what the best of the Brits were like in India.  And there were more than a few.

Next up, J.K. Stanford.  If it means anything to you, Ernest Hemingway was a fan, and particularly liked his 1949 novel, Guns Wanted.  He termed it “marvelous,” and I wouldn’t argue, but for Stanford at his finest, I give you The Twelfth & After.  It was published in 1944 and has never since been out of print.  Stanford was a dedicated wingshooter, but he was also an ornithologist.  The Twelfth is a fable, if you like, or a novel, if you prefer, or maybe a fantasy.  A crusty English colonel, after a generous lunch, nods off in his club and awakens to find himself reincarnated as a red grouse on the eve of the Glorious Twelfth.  Everyone who shoots only pen-raised quail, and thinks of birds as merely feathered targets, should read it, and not just once.

My final recommendation for this episode is Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy.  This is an anthology of his columns from Field & Stream in the Fifties, but it contains more insight than two volumes of Hegel and the complete works of St. Francis.  At least, it does where hunting and fishing are concerned and, well, life in general.  It’s too well known to describe in detail, but sometimes a reminder is not out of place.  Consider yourself reminded.  Published in 1958, never out of print since.  That should tell you something.

Oscar Wilde, not my favorite author but a great one nonetheless, once stated that “if a book is not worth reading twice, it’s not worth reading once.”  All of the above qualify in spades.

Gray’s shooting editor started reading when he was five (or was it four?) and hasn’t stopped since, to the detriment of daily chores and the chagrin of a bevy of exes.