Reviews of Better Living Through Birding by Christian Cooper

Better Living Through Birding

Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World

by Christian Cooper

Better Living Through Birding by Christian Cooper X
Better Living Through Birding by Christian Cooper
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  • Published:
    Jun 2023, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Hon Khalaf
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About this Book

Book Summary

Central Park birder Christian Cooper takes us beyond the viral video that shocked a nation and into a world of avian adventures, global excursions, and the unexpected lessons you can learn from a life spent looking up.

Christian Cooper is a self-described "Blerd" (Black nerd), an avid comics fan and expert birder who devotes every spring to gazing upon the migratory birds that stop to rest in Central Park, just a subway ride away from where he lives in New York City. While in the park one morning in May 2020, Cooper was engaged in the birdwatching ritual that had been a part of his life since he was ten years old when what might have been a routine encounter with a dog walker exploded age-old racial tensions. Cooper's viral video of the incident would send shock waves through the nation.

In Better Living Through Birding, Cooper tells the story of his extraordinary life leading up to the now-infamous incident in Central Park and shows how a life spent looking up at the birds prepared him, in the most uncanny of ways, to be a gay, Black man in America today. From sharpened senses that work just as well at a protest as in a park to what a bird like the Common Grackle can teach us about self-acceptance, Better Living Through Birding exults in the pleasures of a life lived in pursuit of the natural world and invites you to discover them yourself.

Equal parts memoir, travelogue, and primer on the art of birding, this is Cooper's story of learning to claim and defend space for himself and others like him, from his days at Marvel Comics introducing the first gay storylines to vivid and life-changing birding expeditions through Africa, Australia, the Americas, and the Himalayas. Better Living Through Birding recounts Cooper's journey through the wonderful world of birds and what they can teach us about life, if only we would look and listen.

An Incident in Central Park

I am a Black man running through New York's Central Park. This is no leisure run. I'm not pushing for a new personal best, though my legs pump in furious rhythm. I'm running as if my life depends on it. And though my heart pounds, it's as much out of mounting panic as it is cardiovascular stress. I know what this looks like. My sneakers are old and muddy, my jeans in need of a good washing, and my shirt, though collared, could at best be described as unkempt. I am a Black man on the run. And I have binoculars.

This is not how this evening was supposed to unfold. But all it took was a brief exchange of words to put me in flight. Twilight is racing along the horizon, and I've got half an hour of light left at best. As the sun sinks behind trees wreathed in its glow, so, too, does a feeling of desperation in the pit of my stomach. I'm running out of time.

I check the alert on my phone again and curse myself for turning it off for the entire ...

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Cooper weaves in tips for people who want to start birding, while also conveying the wonder and beauty of observing birds in their natural habitats with all one's senses. He relates his experiences interacting with different cultures as a gay Black man: for example, being seen as a nonthreat in Australia or an exotic draw in Argentina. Beyond social commentary, he portrays intimate revelations about his childhood and relationships with his mother and father. Better Living Through Birding shows Cooper as much more than the 60 seconds that catapulted him to fame. After all, he was already an accomplished writer and champion of LGBTQ+ causes, and the viral video scene appears in one of the last few chapters (and one of the least fascinating). The book reads in part as an ode to science fiction, as we learn how he escaped to fantasy worlds through Star Wars, Star Trek and comics, resulting in his work as a writer for Marvel Comics and his creation of its first gay character...continued

Full Review Members Only (586 words)

(Reviewed by Jennifer Hon Khalaf).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
In addressing the Central Park incident, [Cooper] elegantly frames it within both his own bird-focused narrative and a broader conversation about racism and police brutality... arguments are never made with a cudgel; instead, they organically emerge from his captivating personal story. Meanwhile, his passion for birding could make hobbyists of even the most avian-agnostic. This rewarding memoir adds heft and heart to the headlines.

Kirkus Reviews
A celebration of the delights of watching birds... Candid reflections from an appealing guide to the birding life.

Author Blurb Brittney Cooper, PhD, New York Times bestselling author of Eloquent Rage
I cannot think of a better guide to teach us all to slow down, look, listen, and grab our binoculars than Cooper, a self-described Black queer nerd, who delivers the best nature bath ever, in lyrical, lush, relatable prose.

Author Blurb Ed Yong, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of An Immense World
Christian Cooper's book is every bit as wondrous and captivating as the birds he so adores—a joyous tour across subcultures and continents, and a masterful account of a life full of song, full of heart, and fully lived.

Author Blurb Jennifer Ackerman, New York Times bestselling author of The Genius of Birds
Utterly captivating, a marvel of storytelling... Christian Cooper's memoir is tender, honest, funny, wise, poignant, piercing, and infused with brilliant observations on the nature of birds, humans, and his own extraordinary personal journey.

Reader Reviews

prem singh yadav

Christian Cooper's memoir "Better Living Through Birding" delves into the author's personal journey as well as the joys of bird-watching. The novel begins with a memorable occurrence on Memorial Day 2020, when Cooper requested a dog walker to harness...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Minorities in Birding

Cardinal perched on a branch in Central Park, New York in front of green background The viral video of Christian Cooper confronting a white woman who threatened to call the police on him while he was birdwatching in New York's Central Park helped drive the 2020 protests stemming from the police murders of Black Americans. Yet Cooper has done much beyond this video to raise awareness about racism in general and within the birding world.

The last chapter of his memoir Better Living Through Birding shows him traveling to the Deep South to both reckon with his racial history and promote a more equitable vision of birding through the Black Belt Birding Festival. The event, hosted by the Alabama Audubon (a branch of the bird protection and conservation organization the Audubon Society), sought to increase interest and ...

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