Outside magazine, May 1996
The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man's Recreation, by Izaak Walton. "Walton: Sage benign!" wrote poet William Wordsworth, who penned an entire sonnet in praise of Izaak Walton's famous fishing guide. Hundreds of editions of The Compleat Angler have appeared since its publication in 1653, making it one of the most popular books in the history of the English language. Nonetheless, our advice is cut bait. As a practical fishing guide the book is out of date by several centuries, and as literature, it is muddier than a stirred-up trout stream. If you're an insomniac, this just might be your cure.
The Mountains of California, by John Muir. By the time this book appeared in 1894, the pioneering environmental activist was 56 years old and could already count many of his extraordinary accomplishments. His books, however, don't measure up. The Mountains of California is gilded with the flowery "word painting" style of travel writing popular in the nineteenth century-full of "glorious floods of light" and the odd "noble summit." Too often, Muir's purple prose fills the present-day reader with mirth just when it should be inspiring awe.
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. Innumerable printings in at least 68 languages-could millions of readers be wrong? Sure. London's 1903 tale of a Klondike sled dog is a literary miniature poodle: insubstantial, fuzzy, and irritating. Nothing against anthropomorphism per se, but if animals are going to think like humans, let them be clever originals like Mister Ed or Pepe Le Pew, not mouthpieces for an angst-ridden Darwinian theme of the "dominant primordial beast."
The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch. Over the years, this 1952 story of a "city man" who went to live in the Arizona desert has taken on the status of a classic. Undeservedly. Krutch is a stylist, but as Gregory McNamee, editor of The Sierra Club Desert Reader, points out, "Krutch knew the desert from his backyard and from airplanes afforded him by his rich patrons. He didn't get out into the real thing." Krutch concludes that a landscape that first appears "monotonous" is actually full of wonders. His book works just the opposite way.
The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey, 1975. Abbey achieved sainthood in environmental circles well before his death in 1989, and this tale of a band of fun-loving eco-vigilantes had a lot to do with it. But as novels go, it's pretty bad. Some comic books have more fully fleshed-out characters and more plausible plots.