Day 42: Reading with the Spine

The arrival of a tiger, it’s true, is often preceded by moments of rising tension, because a tiger’s presence changes the jungle around it, and those changes are easier to detect. Birdcalls darken. Small deer call softly to each other. Herds do not run but drift into shapes that suggest some emerging group consciousness of an escape route. A kind of shiver seems to run through everything, a low hum that sounds—literally, in the murmured Hindi conversation of the guides—like tiger, tiger, tiger. This zone of apprehension follows the tiger as it moves. Often, the best way to find a tiger is to switch off your engine and listen. You might then hear, from a distance, the subtle changes in pitch and cadence that indicate a boundary of the zone. But even then, it is impossible to predict where, or if, the tiger will appear.

Vladimir Nabokov advised something to the effect of reading fine prose with the spine. I think what he meant was that when you were reading well, when you were fully attentive and in the hands of a master, you will come upon sentences and paragraphs that will not just lodge in your mind but send voltage up your backbone.

Last night I was reading Brian Phillips' essay collection Impossible Owls. It's brilliant. The quoted passage above is from "Man-eaters," a piece about his experience observing wild tigers in India. When I read this paragraph the volts came and I thought Oh damn, is that good... Descriptive prose worthy of Barry Lopez, to whom there's no higher compariaon.

The paragraph before that one is almost as good. Savor.

I had no trouble imagining a tiger creeping up behind the T-shirt stand, in any case, because in the presence of a tiger what most astonishes is not its size or its power or even its beauty but its capacity to disappear. I’m sure you’ve heard about the stealth of tigers on nature shows. It’s no preparation for the reality. You will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen. Maybe a professional guide can spot one, or one of the forest villagers who live around the reserves; for a regular human with untrained, human senses, there’s no chance. The way a tiger arrives is, there is nothing there. Then a tiger is there. Outside one of the exits from Bandhavgarh, the densely forested jungle reserve in central India, there is a sun-faded sign. It shows a picture of a tiger, and next to the tiger the sign reads: PERHAPS YOU MAY NOT HAVE SEEN ME, BUT PLEASE DON’T BE DISAPPOINTED. I HAVE SEEN YOU.


Read Phillips' entire essay here, published by The Ringer.