The online cat photo is now officially more popular than the selfie, The Telegraph reported two weeks ago. According to research undertaken by the Three network, 3.8 million cat photos or videos are shared each day by British web users, compared with only 1.4 million selfies. This is unsurprising – whether you like cats or not, it’s likely your Facebook feed is inundated by Lolcats or videos of large cats squeezing themselves into fishbowls at any given time.
The popularity of cats also translates into books. Internet personality cats like Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, Maru and Simon’s Cat have all had books published about them, their owners profiting from publishing in print what is available for free online. Colonel Meow (may he rest in peace; he died in late January) appears in the 2014 Guinness World Records Book as cat with the longest fur (an average of 9 inches per strand). Jeffrey Brown’s Cats Are Weird is a collection of comics detailing the strange and wonderful habits of cats (and cat owners); Best In Show contains knitting patterns for twenty-five feline breeds. Others are literally just a bunch of cat photos printed in a book.
While the extreme popularity of cats can sometimes seem like a recent phenomenon coinciding with the invention of YouTube, kitties have always held a special place in the human heart (well, except for those strange individuals known as ‘dog lovers’). Look how many people turned up to audition their black cats for a role in Tales of Terror, back in 1961. The same year, Introducing Kittens was published – an A4 sized book of full-page, glossy kitten photos (I own a copy myself). In the 1800s, Harry Pointer was photographing cats riding bicycles, and Mark Twain was waxing lyrical about the superiority of cats over humans.
In his new book Cat Sense, animal biologist John Bradshaw goes back even further in time to detail the human fascination with felines. He cites Christopher Smart’s 18th century poem ‘For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry’ which humorously positions the cat as a type of holy being; Bradshaw also cites a poem from 900 years earlier, written by a 9th century monk, which compares the monk’s delight at articulating his ideas in writing with his cat Pangur’s joy at catching a mouse.
Bradshaw also provides a comprehensive summary of the archeological evidence for, and evolutionary history of, the domestic cat. Over 4,000 years ago in Egypt, cats were regarded as cherished pets – so revered, in fact, that they were often sacrificed to the gods. Entire commercial enterprises were established to breed, mummify and sell cats so they could be used as offerings. This seems barbaric now, but then it was a sign of the cat’s sacredness.
A lesser-known tidbit about the Egyptians, though, is that they practically invented the cat meme. As well as more formal drawings, Bradshaw came across whimsical cartoon engravings of cats in his research, which depicted the animals walking around on their hind legs and carrying packs on their shoulders.
Australian novelist Natasha Lester recently lamented how hard it is to sell literary fiction compared to cat books. When today’s best-selling books have names like ‘I Could Pee On This’ and Other Poems by Cats, it’s understandable why fiction writers, whose own book sales are often scant despite the quality of their writing, may feel demoralised. But considering the human fascination – nay, obsession – with cats has not decreased in fervour over the millennia, I’d say coming second to a cat book isn’t too shameful.