When discussing and writing about literature, rarely do any guidebooks or instruction guides ever factor as possible genres to comment on *as* literature. On the surface this makes sense, we typically understand guides as utilities or tools to aid in some other recreation or activity. Eventually, your knowledge of Australian and New Zealand wines will reach a point where you will never need to reach for your copy of Australian and New Zealand Wines for Dummies again. Thus, your typical instructional book never exists for itself to be “read” but instead to be followed until its usefulness has run dry. While many trumpet the importance and value of literature for its own sake, the fact that poems, fiction, pretty words etc. don’t really do anything intrinsically valuable is arguably a small part of literature’s appeal. Literature can be free from the life’s necessities and dwell in the imagination so, naturally, the tool-like design of instruction books is easily disregarded for possibly sharing this imaginative value. However, I’d like to blur the divide between literature and instruction by examining two works that I think have such literary value. First, Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (first published in 1653, though I’m using the 1676 edition) which has already found its way into the popular consensus that it is in fact “literary” and not mere instruction. Secondly, I’d like to follow up with an examination of David Arora’s All That the Rain Promises and More (1991) as a point of comparison with Walton’s work. Part of what makes these works “literary” is how, in addition to their ability to communicate their intended instruction, they carry additional underlying themes and ideas.
At its core, The Compleat Angler is a guide on fishing across the rivers of England. It contains directions on how to craft convincing flies with various threads, feathers and other materials as well as which types are most appropriate for which fish and at what times/seasons. Likewise, it also contains practical information on live bait, such as how to catch flies and how to preserve them so they last longer, including directions on how a dead cat makes for a good breeding ground for maggots to use as bait. As you might expect, the general structure of the book is divided into chapters focusing on individual species of fish starting with chub as it’s the easiest for beginners to catch. However, upon immediately opening the book, it becomes obvious that Walton has a scope grander than teaching a man to fish. Three characters, Piscator (The Fisherman), Venator (The Hunter), and Auceps (The Falconer), share a road and decide to pass the time with a debate over who has the best recreation. Rather than starting off in the instructional mode, Walton starts off instead in the philosophical and examines how fishing and the other recreations connect to the world, humanity and God. Each of their trades and their connections to the elements (Earth for hunting, Air for falconry, Water for fishing) draws into the mind those ideas of the pre-Socratic philosophers debating which of the classical elements took precedence as the principle of the universe. Venator, having been so impressed by Piscator’s argument, decides he wants to be mentored on the Art of Angling. Like Plato discussing Love in the Phaedrus, Piscator and Ventator escape to some shade under a tree outside town, only instead to discuss fishing techniques and recipes. The title “Compleat” extends beyond just a complete instruction on how to fish, but also fishing as a philosophical, artistic, and spiritual act. The use of philosophy, instruction, music and poetry in The Compleat Angler all line up with a conclusion that points to idle recreation being a good (perhaps even the foremost good) as opposed to the idea that work is more important and recreations are wasteful distractions. For example, listen to “The Angler’s Song” featured prominently in the book:
Angling becomes a release from the sorrows of life and an almost holy ritual. Holiness is very important for Walton as Piscator reminds Venator and the reader that Christ’s chose humble fishermen to be his apostles. Angling expels the “hodge podge of business and money” much like Christ emphasis on turning away from the material wealth and rendering it unto Caesar. Likewise, the necessity of patience in angling as emphasized in the song and Piscator’s own patience in fishing and instructing a novice like Venator relate back to the religious as representation of the patience waiting for Christ’s return as wells as a another reflection of the contemplation of Greek philosophy.
This takes me a modern, albeit less ambitious, manual that mimics many of the qualities of Walton’s work. David Arora wrote All That the Rain Promises and More in 1991 as a companion piece to his previous mushrooming guide Mushrooms Demystified. His first book is a massive guide that seeks to catalogue practically every recorded species in North America. The end result is a massive tome that makes it impractical to carry around while foraging while also the density of information makes it difficult for the novice to penetrate. All That the Rain Promises and More is a response to these issues by making a pocket sized book and less ambitious catalogue of species. However, the book does more than omit from a larger work for the sake of transport; much like The Compleat Angler Arora’s book also seeks to extend beyond mere instruction and articulates a philosophy around the recreation it seeks to teach about. Both Arora and Walton seek to reveal the life philosophy of their respective recreation through the use of poetry:
Mushroom hunting ;
Someone not good at it,
With an armful of wildflowers.
Arora choice to use this poem and many others seeks to drive home his ideas. The poem’s humor derives a lackadaisical approach shows not so much a fool that mistakes flowers for mushrooms as an initial reading might suggest, but instead someone who takes their time and wanders the forest with curiosity. Even the failure to find mushrooms still has its own reward of contemplation and discovery. Likewise, Arora’s pocket guide contains many anecdotes and stories derived from other mushroom hunters he has met that reflect this attitude. Hunters who failed to find the mushroom they were looking for, but instead making another discovery of another fungus or even meeting new friends. Anecdotes of discovering unique ways to prepare and eat mushrooms follow stories of mistakenly eating bad mushrooms and even the latter story are presented in a way that makes it seem a positive experience. This aligns a lot with Walton who confessed that he was never really an expert fisherman but sought not only to instruct to also to express the value his hobby has brought to him. Arora is comparatively a more professional mycologist than Walton is an ichthyologist but nonetheless they seek a similar commonality in approach empathizing a patient contemplative approach that’s more about the action itself rather than immediate gratification (though both would certainly agree a high bounty by no means spoils the experience). While Arora doesn’t interweave mushrooming through classical philosophy and theology like Walton, he no doubt seeks to connect mushrooming to greater values of the human condition. I certainly would prefer to carry around All That the Rain Promises and More with me than I would the infinitely dull and ridiculously dense National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.