I was recently browsing in a used bookstore when a neat stack of colorful little paperbacks caught my eye. It is said that smells elicit the most powerful memories, but in this case it was the titles, minimalist as they were: "Birds," "Flowers," "Insects," "Trees."
I had stumbled upon a set of vintage Golden Nature Guides, familiar companions of my boyhood. These were true handbooks: Made for accompanying the budding naturalist into the field, they fitted in the palm of the hand and provided a smattering of essential facts interspersed with brief, engaging narratives.
Even now I smile as I turn to page 83 of "Fishes" and read the section on barracudas. The author lists the various species and such relevancies as their spawning and feeding habits. And then, in a melodramatic gloss, we are told that barracudas are the "tigers" of the sea, "ferocious ... game fishes," before being offered the cold comfort that they are "much less dangerous than sharks."
The father of these guides – and often either their principal author or coauthor – was the late Herbert Zim.
According to the jacket blurb, Dr. Zim was a professor of education at the University of Illinois. But whatever he accomplished in the classroom must have paled compared with the treasure trove of Golden Nature Guides he left behind.
These slim volumes persist because they contain so many engaging, even charming, features. One of these was a brief foreward, in which the intellect of the reader was not overly taxed.
Here are the first two sentences from "Fishes": "Fishes have lived on the earth longer than any other backboned animals and show greater diversity in their way of life. If interest in fishes can be judged by interest in fishing, they are the most popular animals, too." It's actually brilliant: just a dab at the scientific, followed by a nod to a pastime enjoyed by millions.
But what really characterizes these books is their sense of childlike enchantment. Take this commentary from "Stars": "Nothing else in nature can arouse the feelings of wonder that are provoked by an eclipse, a meteor shower, or even a close look at our near-by moon."
To ensure that this sense of wonder is well grounded in the reader, "Stars," like all the other volumes, is profusely illustrated with somewhat clunky watercolors that nevertheless make their point.
An example is the portrait of a little blond-haired girl in a green, button-down frock and Mary Jane shoes, standing in front of a "Large Iron Meteorite from Greenland: 34 tons."
Another artist's rendition shows a rocket headed for the moon, as conceived circa 1951. It portrays a generic (no national markings), bullet-shaped craft under full, fiery thrust, bearing down on Earth's satellite like a dart aimed at a balloon.
I can recall, as a child, lying in bed with one or more of these books in hand. Sometimes I would do no more than examine the covers, illuminated by the soft glow of my night light.
These cover illustrations pointed the way to the science within, and yet there was something fanciful about them.
In "Stars," for example, a large Saturn, tilted at a jaunty angle, occupies center stage, but it is simply preeminent against a backdrop showing a streaking comet, the Milky Way, Mars, Earth, and a nebula, as if all of these heavenly features existed in close spatial proximity.
Of course, as a 10-year-old, I was neither so discerning nor so critical, but when I look back, I realize that it was this very cover art that inspired me to crack these books and start reading.
"Insects," "Rocks and Minerals," "Mammals," "Seashores." The list goes on. I have, in my own teaching and scientific career, read many professional papers and books, yet I don't think I ever read any of them twice. But I come back to the Golden Nature Guides time and again.
Part of this, I acknowledge, is nostalgia. But much of it is genuine appreciation for the way these books continue to captivate me.
My son has an avid curiosity about nature, and most of the frogs and toads on our property have long since been put on alert that when Anton is afoot, they must reckon with a sojourn in a plastic bucket.
To help develop this appreciation for life other than his own, I gave him my set of Golden Nature Guides. At first he looked askance at them, but soon thereafter, I found him curled up on the sofa with the pile in his lap. He was paging through "Fossils," and his eyes were aglow.
The torch, I realized, had been passed.
When Professor Zim died in 1994, I found in Time magazine the most modest of obituaries, a small paragraph. At the time, I was disappointed that this man didn't get more than a nod, especially from the baby-boomer editors who must have known his books during their formative years.
But on second thought, perhaps the obit was fitting. It was cursory, pointed, and contained the essentials. Just like Zim's Golden Nature Guides. Long may they wave.