A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Dog Books
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)
Britain and America are known as dog-loving nations and, having lived in one or the other country all my life, I happily go along with that stereotype. My family has had dogs since I was seven years old, but living in a pet-free rental house now has meant that I have to get my doggy fix through books rather than in person.
I keep handy a copy of Dr. Bruce Fogle’s illustrated Dogs guidebook to identify and learn more about individual breeds, and I’ve enjoyed canine nonfiction ranging from Jon Katz’s sweetly engaging A Dog Year to J.R. Ackerley’s cantankerous, scatological tale of his German Shepherd, My Dog Tulip. And then of course there’s John Grogan’s bestselling Marley & Me; it’s a nice book and good fun to read – don’t get me wrong – but it would be a shame to stop with that one when there are so many other fantastic dog books out there. Here are my top five:
Mark Doty is an excellent poet and memoirist. School of the Arts is my favorite of his poetry books and a great place to start for an introduction to his themes, while his best book is probably Heaven’s Coast, a beautiful and richly emotional memoir of his partner’s death from AIDS. But for dog lovers, you can’t beat Dog Years, his chronicle of time spent with Beau and Arden. Doty captures perfectly what companionship with dogs is like: how their pure exuberance for life in the present moment can inspire and console their over-thinking human owners.
2. Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby (2011)
Here’s another wonderful memoir of life with dogs, from the chief literature critic of The Irish Times. Bilbo and Frodo were the two rescue dogs who warmed her days when she first moved to Ireland from her native California, and saw her through all the coming years’ unexpected turns, including becoming a single mother. Battersby’s account of two decades awash with book reviews and travels around the Irish countryside, all accompanied by two characterful dogs, made me envious.
If you know of Peter Mayle, it’s probably through his delightful series of books about expatriate life in southern France, starting with A Year in Provence. A Dog’s Life continues the paean to Provence, this time from the perspective of his dog, Boy, a mutt of indeterminate origins with delusions of grandeur. What makes this whimsical biography particularly enjoyable are the black and white illustrations from New Yorker artist Edward Koren.
Anyone who has read The Orchid Thief, the book that loosely inspired Charlie Kaufman’s bizarre but brilliant film Adaptation, will know that New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean writes terrific, wide-ranging nonfiction. In this ‘biography’ of one of the world’s most famous dogs, she not only tells the stories of the individual dogs who portrayed him over the years (and the cast of oddballs who owned and worked with all the dogs), but also the story of the movie and merchandise empire that has grown up around the legend of Rin Tin Tin since 1918.
5. Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)
Woolf paved the way for those previous two doggy bios with her book about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush. Although not as inventive as her pseudo-biography of Vita Sackville-West, Orlando (included in Chantelle’s super list of spring reads), Flush is both a playful little tale in its own right and a sideways glance at the life of the Brownings. Flush first joins Elizabeth in 1842, when she still lives in her family home as an invalid; he observes Robert’s courtship of her, travels with her to Italy after their elopement, and later becomes best of friends to their son Pen.
From a limited range of sources (Elizabeth’s letters and her poems “To Flush, My Dog” and “Flush, or Faunus”), Woolf spins a surprisingly eventful life story ranging from prehistoric Spain (the origin of the spaniel) to 19th-century Florence, with a climactic scene in which Flush is stolen by a gang of professional thieves and held for ransom for six days. Flush may be a minor book in the Woolf canon, but it marks an interesting interlude between The Waves (1931) and The Years (1937) and is a worthy tribute to the faithful companion about whom Elizabeth declared “of thee it shall be said, / This dog watched beside a bed / Day and night unweary.”
What are some of your favorite nonfiction books about dogs? I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Perhaps there’s scope for a sequel: dogs in novels!