It comes as little surprise that in the diverse acknowledgements in the final pages of his book Of Cats and Men, most of them active participants in the either the creative or business sides of transforming a manuscript to a published book or the encouragement of that process, that illustrator Sam Kalda includes not only his currently serving feline companion Sister but her departed predecessors, Lily and Patches.
Challenging the sterotype of masculinity in his introduction, that men must be rugged and have a dog by their side, Kalda instead proposes that to have a cat is no less manly, and among the gentlemen examined within he later considers no less a man’s man than the great writer Ernest Hemingway whose reputation speaks of “guns, booze, women and big game hunting,” but who also apparently enjoyed the company of cats.
Kalda does propose that typically it is a different variety of man who favours the companionship of cats, in his words “artists, writers, scientists and philosophers,” and it is worth noting that these are the types of men, the great thinkers and creatives who have pushed society and culture forward more than those who choose to “ride shoulder to shoulder in mud-splattered pickups” with their canine friends.
Where dogs are by nature gregarious, cats can be choosy to the point of exclusivity, but at no point does Kalda indulge in any aspect of rivalry between the two; this is not in any way a criticism of dogs and those who love them or any other animal so much as a celebration of the particular way in which cats insinuate themselves into the lives and thoughts of so many.
Of Cats and Men is in no way intended to be comprehensive – how could it ever hope to catalogue every great man who enjoyed the company of an equally great cat? – so much as representative; “parties are best kept small,” as Kalda observes, and his gathering encompasses only thirty men though it is not just Kalda’s commentary on the various luminaries profiled but often their own words, with cat related quotes from Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Terry Pratchett, Charles Bukowski, William S Burroughs and others.
While there is no attempt made to categorise the cat fanciers the range is broad, from Hywel Dda, King of Deheubarth in the early part of the tenth century who recognised the value of cats as pest controllers, an opinion overturned centuries later when Christianity persecuted women for witchcraft and cats as their familiars – conversely Islam appreciates felines following the endorsement of the Prophet Muhammad – through Sir Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla and Sir Winston Churchill to contemporary figures such as Ai Weiwei and Haruki Murakami, though the absence of Robert A Heinlein is an unfortunate oversight.
There are some whose cats are perhaps more famous than they are, for example the illustrators Louis Wain and Saul Steinberg, and those whose reputation is to some synonymous with cats such as T S Eliot and Edward Lear, and each subject is accompanied by a painting which captures the likeness and character of the individual and their relationship to their cat, Kalda’s style simple, colourful and illuminating.
While there are no great insights to be offered and the repetition of “dear reader” does become tiresomely noticeable when read cover to cover, it is likely intended more as a “dipping” book and it remains an easy, uplifting and entertaining read, a slight and undemanding volume of vicarious comfort whose only lacking is that it cannot purr, though fortunately nor is it likely to cough up a furball.