What We’re Reading: The Feather Thief

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

This book was read by Meredith Lewis, the [mostly] Orange County Campus Librarian, and is available for checkout at the Orange County Campus Library.

Title: The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century 
Author: Kirk Wallace Johnson

Genre: Social Science, True Crime [against a museum and the historical record], History [of animal specimen collection and feather fashion], Ethics

#ReadGreatThings2019 Category: A social science book; A book by a person you admire; A book that features college or higher education

Check out our blog post on the Read Great Things 2019 Challenge


Why did you choose this book? 

I read a lot of book lists and this one popped up sometime last year. Plot-wise, I like museums and true crime, and a museum heist was immediately something interesting to me. I don’t fly fish, but you don’t need to in order to enjoy this book.

Really, The Feather Thief is kind of about a lot of things– recovering after personal and professional disappointment, Victorian fly fishing lures, the role of museums and museum specimens in the historical record and preservation, the ecologically destructive power of fashion, and what can happen to an insular community when something illegal impacts them.  At its core, it’s about a young man who, realizing he has an opportunity to make some money in a niche community that he is a member of, breaks into a natural history museum, steals a lot of rare bird carcasses, and then sells the feathers. He gets caught (not really a spoiler). A portion of the fly fishing community reacts (or refuses to acknowledge their participation). People justify the bad behavior as not so bad and ignore the parts that don’t impact them directly. Reflection ensues. 

Did it remind you of any other book or a movie? 

It reminded me a little of Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (available through the OCC Library) and there’s this movie on Amazon Prime I watched a while ago about a man who forges (copies?) famous paintings and then donates them to art museums called Art & Craft. Both of them examine how people justify or try to hide behaviors that are bad or ethically just not right, but in different ways. I guess that’s a topic that interests me. Who knew? 

Who would you recommend this book to? 

Anyone ready to be surprised by an engaging nonfiction book that may not perfectly align with their own interests. Anyone looking to fill their social science checkbox in the Read Great Things 2019 Challenge. People who like true crime, but want to avoid the murdery ones. 

Also, people who like to tie their own fly fishing lures. This book talks your talk, unless you’re sensitive about buying authentic feathers for Victorian-era lures– then you may feel exceptionally called out.  

About Meredith Lewis

Meredith is a reference librarian at Durham Tech on both the Main and Orange County Campuses. She likes fantasy, science-fiction, and historical fiction and is trying to be a better reader of non-fiction (just after she finishes that stack of novels on her bedside table...)