For the Birds: A Pretty Little Actor’s Love Affair with Ornithology
Truth be told, I meant to write this review a couple of months ago when Ian Harding first released his debut book, Odd Birds. But I was too busy bird-watching. Let me explain.
I have to admit that I was slightly skeptical about this book. While I was somewhat of a fan of his TV show Pretty Little Liars, the fact that yet another actor wrote yet another book left me a little cynical going into it. Then, I got to attend the local Barnes & Noble book signing and release party here in Pittsburgh, where I got to chat with the author himself, actor Ian M. Harding. After sitting down with Ian and talking for a while, I had renewed hope when it came to Odd Birds. I could tell that this book really had nothing to do with the throngs of excited teenage girls who were waiting in line for a photo op. Mr. Harding, a Carnegie Mellon University alum, came across as very earnest, genuine, and endearing.
Yes, he’s handsome and charming, but it quickly became clear that he is more than a pretty face. He is not an actor first and a “wannabe” author second: he’s just an actor who, as I discovered after reading his book, happens to also be a talented author, as well. The nonfiction book Odd Birds is a unique memoir, and is not told in chronological order.
That is only one of the many interesting aspects of Ian’s writing style. But if you want Hollywood insider gossip, this is not the book for you. This first-person narrative looks at Harding’s life and career as told from his perspective of being an avid birdwatcher. One of the things I love most about this book is that he often compares his Los Angeles lifestyle to his hobby of birding. This struck me because I also enjoy bird-watching and often feel like a paparazzo as I “stalk” my feathered friends, hoping to get the perfect photo. Not only is this book filled with funny and touching anecdotes, apt metaphors, and thoughtful prose, but it also allows readers to explore a hobby that is often solitary. On a personal level, this book allowed me to embrace my inner “bird nerd.” Ian and I talked about the fact that ornithology is kind of a niche interest, one that is frequently associated with introverts or old folks. But Odd Birds, in a sense, gave me permission to explore birding with reckless abandon.
In his book, Ian recounts a California road trip where he discovered that a friend of his was also interested in birding, all because of the sighting of a hooded merganser. Because he realized he wasn’t the only young person with an interest in birds, he felt freer to reignite his interest of bird-watching, which had gone to the wayside a bit in his teenage and college years. Well, I haven’t spotted a hooded merganser just yet, but Ian, despite being a practical stranger, was that kind of “friend” for me. Or at least, his book was. After reading Odd Birds, I went all in on my birding hobby, whereas before I was just testing the waters, dipping my toe in the proverbial birdbath, and maybe a little embarrassed of my interest.
Now, I sit in my backyard and take in the chickadees, downy woodpeckers, goldfinches, blue jays, mourning doves, and hummingbirds on a daily basis. I keep track of them. I take pictures of them. I feed them and truly enjoy the meditative time I spend watching the different birds that visit my backyard every day. Every so often, while I am enjoying my backyard birds, I’m reminded of stories from Odd Birds, like how birding allowed Ian to bond with his dad, how he was taught a life lesson by a hawk, how he used bird-watching to ground himself when the stressors and monotony of being on a TV show got to him, and how he was stopped by fans for a selfie while out on a birding hike. I remember him writing that there were different types of bird enthusiasts: when it comes to birding, he’s not a photo-taker; I am. And I’ve got to admit: the part of me that is interested in popular culture and celebrity gossip was not even the least bit let down that there wasn’t more of it in this book by a Hollywood actor. He told his engaging stories so well, and with such candor and self-awareness, that I didn’t miss the self-congratulatory fluff and tawdry gossip found in so many celebrity memoirs.
This is a book that had very few missteps and one that could be enjoyed by both fans of Ian Harding and fans of birdwatching alike. And in the age of social media, this easy read with a unique point of view is definitely something to “tweet” about.