December 2020

Paul Koudounaris and Baba the Cat

Tail as old as time
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This one-of-a-kind history traces the partnership between humans and cats back to the foundation of civilization.

When I put Paul Koudounaris on speakerphone, my two cats appear from seemingly nowhere and settle in to listen to the sound of his voice. After a brief chat about the pleasant lack of fleas around his new home in Joshua Tree, California, the author of A Cat’s Tale: A Journey Through Feline History chuckles approvingly when I pause to tell him that I had to move a cat off my notes.

Given that A Cat’s Tale, a record of Felis history from ancient days to the present, is written in the voice of Koudounaris’ talented tabby, Baba, and includes full-color photographs of her in period dress, one could be forgiven for mistaking this book for a piece of coffee table fluff. But Koudounaris boasts real academic cred, with a Ph.D. in art history and a well-known body of work covering charnel houses and ossuaries. The research in his fourth book is therefore substantial, including an impressive bibliography as well as reproductions of line drawings and text from the archives throughout.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Baba the Cat, purported author of A Cat's Tale, and hear her side of the story of how she and Paul met.

But how did a noted death historian turn to the history of cats? “I had this idea that I wanted to write about pet cemeteries,” he tells me. “I started collecting a massive amount of material to write this pet cemetery book . . . but all the stories about cats really stuck out to me because nobody knows all the incredible things they’ve done.” So his focus began to shift—with a little help from Baba. “At the same time, I’d been working on this photo series with my cat,” he admits, “because, let’s face it. She’s a hell of a model.”

Wearing handmade costumes and doll wigs cut to fit a feline, Baba winningly moves the reader from era to era. During the section on ancient Egypt, Baba balances an elaborate gold headdress as Cleopatra. A portrait of her in Navy dress whites introduces a chapter on seafaring cats. Throughout, her arch narrative voice (cultivated for her by her co-writer) engages readers through anecdotes both entertaining and, at times, tragic. “I think it’s fairly well understood now that [during the witch trials] there was not a war on magic, there was a war on gender,” Koudounaris says of one particularly dark period in our past. “The women who were being accused of witchcraft were always women who fell outside the accepted bounds of society. So it makes sense that cats were being burned as well, because they were gendered feminine, and anything that had to do with the feminine was under attack.” A Cat’s Tale identifies several such moments when cats were intrinsically linked with figures maligned by society, intensifying the interspecies bond.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: See our full list of gift recommendations for the most shameless cat lovers in your life.

After all this work, Koudounaris’ choice to hand his book’s byline over to Baba (who depicts Koudounaris as more of a research assistant in her acknowledgments) speaks to his affection for her. Baba adopted him when he visited a Los Angeles animal shelter, stretching out a paw to snag his pants leg as he passed. It was as if an occult hand had paired the two perfectly, and a one-of-a-kind relationship emerged.

When I ask what makes cat lovers so zealous about their mysterious and fleet-footed companions, Koudounaris waxes thoughtful. “Cats have this special thing that really can’t be replicated in a relationship with any other animal, or even another person. The bond with a cat is really unique and poignant. It’s kind of sublime.” If this statement speaks to your heart, then Koudounaris and Baba have the perfect piece of scholarship for you.

Get the Book

A Cat’s Tale

A Cat’s Tale

By Baba the Cat & Paul Koudounaris
ISBN 9781250217721

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