Friday, August 03, 2007

Reading unusual books: Man-Eaters of Kuamon

I am an eclectic book collector and reader.

Apparently most people make their book selections from the newspaper best seller lists or they rush out for the latest Oprah recommendation. In the days of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens there were fewer options for entertainment. Everyone in and out of high society would be waiting for the next book release or serial publication. The latest offering would be eagerly read and passed around. It must have been like those days in the sixties where everyone on the street watched the Laugh-in or Ed Sullivan the night before.

Now there are popular readings -- everyone seems to be reading Harry Potter -- but that is rare. I suspect that more people read Rowling's books so that they are ready for the next movie than read them for the shear pleasure. Reading seems more of a fad than a pleasure.

In my teenage years I sometimes read a book a day! Usually basic science fiction by Andre Norton or Robert Heinlein. Now, decades later, there are so many distractions. There are plenty of good shows on basic cable and I could spend half of every day answering email and twittering away on the Net. I have magazine subscriptions (news, computers and business) that I read from cover to cover.

So it takes special effort to sit and read a book. In the meantime I enjoy visiting used book stores. That is a merchandising category that is in decline. I buy the book categories that no-one wants. Those poor mislaid volumes written by missionaries in old China or perhaps some guide book for a long forgotten World's Fair just seem destined for my bookshelf.

The problem in recent years is of course retreating far enough from modern life to actually read something from my collection. Today I finally finished something that is different than most of my readings.

Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett (Oxford University Press 1946)
Jim Corbett is now known as an environmentalist. India's oldest national park is now named the Jim Corbett National Park. In the twenties he was more famous as a sportsman hunter. He was famous as the man who rid the hills of several man-eating tigers and leopards.

One of the things I liked about this story is its first-person directness. I read another book last year about hunting in BC. That book was full of stories told at some vague time to someone else who told them to the author. This book here is full of first person detail with occasional stories told the author in the immediate aftermath of the events.

Jim Corbett realized that these tigers were a beautiful and necessary part of the Indian hill country. He described how these cats became man eaters out of necessity. Generally the tigers in these events were injured by a hunter who had let the beast escape wounded into the forests. Hunger lead to unsuccessful attempts at their usual fare; then these wounded tigers would turn to something easier. That something easier was the local villagers as they worked their fields or cut tree branches for their livestock.

One surprising thing is the great number of deaths in these cases. One of the tigers in this book was aid to have killed more than 300 victims. The normal tiger habit is to return as many days as it takes to completely eat their kill; but the man eaters had become so shy after many failed hunting attempts that they would gulp a meal of human flesh and then leave for a hiding place. The next day they would be on the hunt for another victim.

Jim Corbett was raised in the hill country. He took prodigious chances and did prodigious feats. He commonly walked many miles up and down thousand foot hillsides. Every sense was at full alert as he stalked his prey. He preferred hunting alone or accompanied by his dog Robin. That way he did not have to worry about loosing a companion to the tiger or a stray shot. He only had to worry about his own hide.

His most common method of bagging a tiger was to hide in a tree within a short distance of the remains of a tiger kill. He would sit there for 14 hours all night at alert readiness for an animal that was as interested in hunting him as he was as interested in hunting it. In several of the stories in this book he managed to bag his tiger as it leapt toward him and fell at his feet.

I am still not a game hunter or what Mr. Corbett would have called a sportsman; but I do have a better appreciation of the difference between his solitary contests between man and beast and that so-called sport as practised by helicopter travelling millionaires.

My hunting will remain the search for elusive and unappreciated books as found on the dusty shelves of bargain book stores.