It’s time to pull unread books from the cottage shelves, and this summer, Birds of America came to hand. Written in 1965, it follows the thoughts of young Peter Levi, a half-Jewish, half-European American, who is attempting to live his life by Kant’s Categorical Imperative: to treat other people as an end, rather than as a means, and to live as if his actions were to become a universal law of nature. For Peter, this means endlessly second-guessing himself and basically feeling guilty 100% of the time, both in Rocky Port, the small New England town where he lives with his mother for a year, and in Paris, where he has enrolled for a year of study abroad to evade the draft. Yes, he is a member of the Junior Ornithologists in Paris, but the birds in question are chiefly Americans, at home and abroad, and Peter’s struggles to analyse and interact with them fill these pages. You can’t help liking him or enjoying the scope of McCarthy’s knowledge and perspicacity. But 350 pages is a lot of thinking, and I was glad when it was over.

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