Falconry is one of the few occupations more archaic than bookselling.
The heyday of the bookshop, depending on whom you ask, was in the 1610s, or the 1950s, or in some year defined as n-30, in which n is the year during which you pen your lament, but surely we can all agree that the golden age of training a vicious bird to sit on your fist until it swoops down to shred its prey with hooked beak and talons occurred centuries ago, perhaps under the great Mongolian Khans, or during the 1240s, when Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman Emperor, unveiled his treatise, De arte venandi cum avibus.
Nevertheless, people still convince birds to sit on their fists, and people still sell books, and as one of the latter I started to hear last year about a memoir that had come out in the United Kingdom called H Is for Hawk. Here's something else that's archaic: In an era when a woman, with a single tweet, can make herself globally unemployable during the time it takes her plane to fly from New York to Cape Town, we still often have to wait a year or more for a book published in Britain to become available in the US. I don't mean you can't get it here—there are many ways you can order it online, or perhaps you could hire an unemployed woman to fly here and deliver it to you—but that a bookseller like me can't sell you a copy until an American company has published it.
Actually, I don't mind that. There's no rush. There are lots of other books to read, and in the meantime you can listen to the murmuring coming across the Atlantic. What murmurs did I hear about H Is for Hawk? Just fragments that made me take notice, beginning with the striking title and cover. I didn't read any reviews or profiles of the young author, Helen Macdonald—I didn't really want to. I just tuned in to the volume and the pitch of the murmurs, which at some point reached a level—even before the book had swept every major nonfiction prize and become a surprise number-one best seller there—that convinced me I would read it for myself. And so I waited, enjoying the anticipation, until a few copies (with the same gorgeous cover as the UK edition) arrived at my store, around the same time that glowing reviews hit in the New York Times and seemingly everywhere else. I took a copy home, fell in love as I'd hoped, started hearing from readers around me how much they loved it, too, and immediately ordered more copies of the book than I'll sell of almost any other book this year. And so now I have H Is for Hawk crammed into every corner of my store, insurance against a midsize publisher that has already run out of the book more than once, and I expect to be putting it in the hands of my customers all year long.
But here I've said almost nothing about the book. What's it about? What happens? A young woman, obsessed with hawks since she was a girl, decides to train the wildest hawk of them all, the goshawk, after the sudden death of her father. Is it the kind of book you'd like? There's a lot said in our business about matching the right book to the right reader, through either a massively calibrated algorithm or a bookseller's neighborly acuity, but once in a while, no matter who the reader might be, all you need to say is "Here, this book is good."
Are you interested in birds? You'll probably like H Is for Hawk. Are you not interested in birds? H Is for Hawk might make you look at them closely for the first time. Have you had a recent experience with grief? You may find that H Is for Hawk speaks to you. Have you been blessed to avoid the grief that is our inexorable lot? H Is for Hawk will likely speak to you as well. Kathryn Schulz's review in the New Yorker is brilliant and perceptive, but I'm glad I read it after I read the book, not before, and instead came to the book strange and brought it into my house wild, like a hawk.
Tom Nissley is the proprietor of Phinney Books.