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“Do I need Joy?”

I think of Norman Humbert Joy as the pre-eminent British coleopterist of the 20th century. I view his ‘Practical Handbook of British Beetles’ as the single most important contribution to beetle identification literature of the century. Funnily enough, what I admire most about it is its imperfections. Entomological history is littered with the unfinished manuscripts of perfectionists but Joy avoided that pitfall and produced a handbook which covers the whole British beetle fauna and is ‘practical’ rather than perfect.

Sadly, after about thirty years of intensely productive work as an amateur coleopterist, including describing at least 11 beetles new to science and adding at least another 17 to the British list, Joy seems to have been disillusioned by the criticism of his ‘Practical Handbook’ and gave his collection away in the following year and seemingly gave up beetles for good. See his entry in Michael Darby’s biographical dictionary.

Joy relied heavily on comparative characters such as ‘elytra quadrate’ versus ‘elytra somewhat elongate’; characters which are difficult or impossible to use on an isolated specimen. Admittedly, Joy provided a very useful set of line drawings to help with these subjective characters but Joy’s handbook still works best when you already have a basic reference collection.

As a beginner I found it very frustrating that attempts to identify my specimens with Joy so often got stuck. There have been times when I’ve thought of the Handbook as ‘Sorrow’ rather than ‘Joy’! But I’ve got used to being more patient; laying specimens aside and amassing further material until I’ve got enough representative specimens from different parts of a key to make sense of it.

Joy’s ‘Practical Handbook’ was first published in January 1932 by H.F. & G. Witherby. It was reprinted in slightly reduced format by E.W. Classey Ltd in 1976. There was another reprint in the 1990s I believe. More recently, a CD-ROM version by Pisces Conservation Ltd has been available. Second-hand copies of the first edition currently fetch around £300.00.

Large sections of Joy’s handbook have been superseded over the ensuing 78 years. For a list of the sections of Joy which I still refer to, click here. These are the only sections of Joy’s handbook which are still worth having. As I have already done for the click beetles, Byrrhidae and Limnichidae and Tachyporinae, I plan to scan, OCR and update some of these and make them available on this website in due course. But feel free to beat me to it!

My advice to anyone wondering whether they should be trying to buy a second-hand copy of Joy would be: don’t. Buy the CD-ROM version and print off all the plates and the keys that aren’t obsolete. Or borrow a copy of the book and photocopy the useful bits. Then use Hodge & Jones (1995) and the checklist to annotate them with all the additional species and all the many changes of nomenclature. I think Joy is unusable without annotations so if you did have a second-hand copy which you had spent good money on, you’d only have to write on it. My copy would be thought of as a disgrace by any book-lover!


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