I will confess to being a little worried when I saw another book about books in the New Naturalist series. An earlier volume in the series has examined the series itself (through two editions), and more recently we have had a book on New Naturalist covers. This is apart from historical publishing in areas such as ornithology receiving coverage elsewhere in more specialist volumes in the series. The stated aim of the series is to ' recapture the enquiring spirit of the old naturalists' and to 'interest the general reader in the wildlife of Britain'. Here, instead, we have a book primarily about authors and publishers.
I did, however, find this a readable and fascinating book that taught me much about books that many naturalists own, including myself. For example, I was not aware that a number of Gilbert White's family were in the publishing trade, and in fact published the early editions of the Natural History of Selbourne. Nor had I understood how revolutionary that book was in its time. Personally I would have preferred to see more on books published in the 20th century, as most readers will own these rather than the 17th/18th/19th century volumes with which this book is more concerned.
I have only rated this book as three stars on the basis that I consider it more a book about publishing than natural history in its own right. However, I enjoyed reading it and if you want a book on natural history publishing, this one can be recommended.
I suggest this is not a book to buy on trust. Look at it in a library or bookshop before deciding. The antique style of the author becomes increasingly exasperating. There are 500 pages, and it could all have been done better in 300. Here is a random sample paragraph complete from page 294: 'As it was, a third youthful enthusiast for this same line of work, Charles Babington (Fig.129), fortunately had very different ideas on how best to fertilise it with money, when in his late teens the death of his father left him with financial freedom of action similarly. In his case, that change happened to coincide with a scarcely less traumatic territorial severance. Having poured his adolescent energies into compiling a Flora of the district round Bath (which he was now able to afford to put into print), the arrival of his university years dictated a wrenching disengagement from that. Cambridge, however, provided a double substitute anchorage: another countryside to help assuage that Flora-compiling hunger; and after graduation and becoming a resident semi-don, a base from which to extend his floristic curiosity to the British Isles as a whole.' Look at Fig 16, John Ray, as an example of how illustrations have been cut and the original proportions disregarded. Clearly the author knows his subject and has a mass of material to present, but the book is out of balance, far too scissors-&-paste, and to me lacks the energy and delight usually found in the superb New Naturalist series.
I agree that this is essentially a good book, badly written. The style is verbose and cumbersome. It is also frequently ungrammatical, which a good copy editor ought to have spotted. It's a shame, because it is a story worth telling and a homage to often forgotten field naturalists and writers who merit a much higher profile in British culture than they currently possess. The narrative is absorbing, but you'll find yourself constantly wanting to refine the writer's prose. I agree also that liberties have been taken in at least some of the (beautiful) illustrations. A lost opportunity in my view.