Best Natural History Books: 8 Classics

I’ve been addicted to natural history books for as long as I can remember. My well-thumbed copy of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth has an inscription in the front wishing me a happy tenth birthday. This definitive, eloquent classic opened my eyes not only to the diversity of life, but also to the sense of wonder that accompanies all wildlife travel.

‘It is not difficult to discover an unknown animal,’ writes Attenborough in the book’s opening lines. ‘Spend a day in the tropical forest of South America, turning over logs, looking beneath bark [and] sifting through the moist litter of leaves...’ With this simple description, Attenborough plunges us into an Amazonian bug-hunting expedition.

That’s the thing about good natural history writing. It makes you feel like you’re there, a natural accomplice, delving into the same environment, sharing the revelations.

The best wildlife books inform and inspire, and Life on Earth (Collins, 1979) definitely belongs in my top eight. Picking the others, however, was no easy task. Some are there for their riveting travelogues, others for their groundbreaking revelations, passionate voice, eye-watering humour or breathtaking photography and art.

The Voyage of the Beagle (Wordsworth Editions, 1997)

Charles Darwin’s wonderfully observed, revelatory voyage to South America and the South Pacific.

The Wild Places (Granta Books, 2007)

Robert MacFarlane’s eloquent portrait of Britain’s last wild places.

The Diversity of Life (Belknap Press, 1992)

Edward O Wilson’s definitive essay on the importance of biodiversity.

The Snow Leopard (Vintage Classics, 2010)

Peter Mathiesson’s evocative account of mountains and mysticism.

Into the Heart of Borneo (Penguin, 2005)

Redmond O’Hanlon’s keenly described and often hilarious jungle adventure.

Eye to Eye (Taschen, 2009)

Incredible images by Frans Lanting, one of the world’s greatest wildlife photographers.

One Man’s Island (HarperCollins, 1984)

A wildlife artist’s year on Scotland’s Isle of May, revealed through beautiful sketches

and watercolour paintings. Keith Brockie’s work is a celebration of the art of natural history observation.

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