Review: The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk W. Johnson

the feather thief kirk w johnsonRating: ★★★☆☆

Genres: Non-Fiction, True Crime, History


Okay, this was absolutely a cover-buy. Although I didn’t read this as a physical book, but rather as an audiobook, it’s still so pretty to look at. Also, it said “The Natural History Heist of the Century”, so I was drawn to it. A real-life case of heist? Rare birds? Sign me in.

While the book is meant to be about the heist itself, and the first chapter is really interesting, describing the heist itself, it takes until 40% of the book to go back to the heist itself. In between, the history of those birds is told, which goes from being interesting because of the parallels between Alfred Russel Wallace and his contemporary Charles Darwin, to really boring indeed, because I cannot care less about the misfortunes and successes of Europeans stealing birds from Brazil and other parts of South America. While I understand that back then things were different and it’s possible they actually regarded the forest as no more than open ground for killing and stealing (even if for the noble purpose of science), this book was published in 2018 and I expected some commentary on the problematic issues from this kind of research. But no. It’s told as an exotic adventure. Unsurprising, since the author isn’t South American himself, but still annoying to listen to.

Why were the birds stolen? To use the feathers to create these:

Bildergebnis für victorian fly

They are called flies and they are used to fish (click on the image to go to the website of origin). I am writing this review as a person who’d never given any thought to fly fishing before reading this book. If you are actually interested in the theme, however, this review at might be more interesting for you. I couldn’t understand the obsession with bird feathers for creating those things which people didn’t even use for fishing but for their… beauty. But it’s fascinating to see how important it is to some people.

As a reader mostly used to fiction, this book was interesting, certainly a unique story and with its highlights of actual suspense, and history, but a good chunk of it was rather boring. The word “heist” brings to mind a fast-paced plot, but this gets surprisingly slow at times. If you are curious about the story, plus you’re interested in history, I think you’ll like this book. But if this your first non-fiction and the word “heist” attracted you, maybe skip this one.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk W. Johnson

  1. Darn, I had high hopes for this one, but I think I’d feel similarly about it, I’m much more interested in the heist than the bird history! I’ll probably still read it but my expectations have been adjusted. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

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