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A Scribner Reading Group Guide

Birds Art Life
Kyo Maclear
January 2017

This reading group guide for Birds Art Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. We hope that these questions will enrich your reading group’s conversation and your experience of the book.


Birds Art Life is a beautifully crafted meditation on the search for beauty, meaning, and creative inspiration in the stillness of the natural world. Seeking an antidote to stress and grief, Kyo Maclear joins a musician on his weekly birding tours of the city parks and harbors of Toronto, learning, over the course of a year, to approach other aspects of her life through a more delicate, forgiving lens. Blending memoir, nature writing, and cultural commentary, Maclear plumbs the universal questions that frame the human experience. How can we draw emotional nourishment from nature? Why, in an ever-expanding world, should we hold tight to smallness? What is the function of creative expression during times of anguish and loss? By seeking beauty in the small things, Maclear shows us a path towards a more meaningful, compassionate, and fulfilling way of being in the world.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

  1. Birds Art Life is structured by season. Why do you think Maclear chose this as an organizing principle? How does the rhythm of the natural world mirror the cyclical turns of our interior lives?
  2. Maclear writes on stress and solitude, “A mind narrows when it has too much to bear. Art is not born of unwanted constriction. Art wants formless and spacious quiet, antisocial daydreaming, time away from the consumptive volume of everyday life” (7). Do you agree with Maclear? Does art require solitude? Is there meaning to be found in noise and chaos?
  3. On page 9, Maclear writes, “Faces have a near-unwatchable intimacy, particularly in a world where everything perishes in the end.” How does this observation connect to the anticipatory grief Maclear feels towards her ailing father?
  4. How does art lead us towards “other possible lives” (13)? Does the solitary nature of art hinder such a pursuit?
  5. On page 21, Maclear describes how every time her family moved, her mother constructed a Japanese rock garden in their new backyard. What is the symbolism of this action?
  6. In the early days of their birding adventures, the musician tells Maclear that “birds may sing just for the joy of it” (30). Why do you think this idea makes Maclear so happy? What might we learn from song made simply for the pleasure of song itself?
  7. On page 39 Maclear describes the “sanctuary of the cage.” How are we conditioned to live compartmentalized lives? In what ways can boundaries and constrictions be positive and life-giving?
  8. Smallness is a guiding aesthetic for Maclear’s art. How do we see the value of smallness play out in Birds Art Life, both in terms of structure and content?
  9. Maclear describes the “spark birds” and “spark books” that ignited her passion for birding and literature. What was your “spark book?” Discuss the formative paintings, films, music, etc. that changed the way you view the world.
  10. Throughout the book we see the devastating impact of human interference on birds’ existence. In what ways do we also see the natural world transcend the effects of human development? Do you view such developments as a loss?
  11. How does art sustain us through lulls? How can lulls be, as Daniel Day Lewis describes on page 137, the periods in our lives where we do “the real work” of becoming human?
  12. What do you make of Maclear’s musings on regret? “Would a life protected from all regret be considered virtuous or monstrous?” (71)
  13. Maclear states that, “For me, birding and writing did not—and do not—feel interchangeable. Birding was the opposite of writing” (195). Do you agree with her here? In what ways do birding and writing get at the same universal truths?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Read Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. How does Crawford’s vision amplify Maclear’s philosophy? How does the notion smallness animate both works?
  2. Contact your local Audubon Society chapter and arrange to go on a local bird tour with your book club. How did reading Birds Art Life inform your adventure? Did the experience change the way you understand Maclear’s artistic vision?
Purchase the audiobook from Audible or S&
Read an extract from Birds Art Life
See photographs by the bird guide featured in Birds Art Life