Book Review: Inventing Montana by Ted Leeson

Inventing Montana by Ted Leeson
Skyhorse Publishing; 1ST edition (September 1, 2009)

I know I’m a little late to the party, Inventing Montana by Ted Leeson came out quite a while ago. But I feel the need to chime in anyway. This book deserves an erudite, scholarly review – because it is that kind of book – in spite of that I’m going to offer my thoughts anyway. Let me start off by saying what this book is not: 1) It is not an easy book and 2) It is not a book about fly fishing. I’ll amplify these statements a little.

It is not an easy book: To qualify this, let me say that I like to read at night right before I go to sleep. This is probably not the best time of day at which to tackle this work. I don’t want to over-state this, but there are some complicated, nuanced ideas expressed in this book. And these ideas are sometimes expressed with complicated passages. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

The philosopher Gaston Bachelard celebrated this conjunction between house and memory and explored, at least insofar as I understand him, domestic spaces as the repository – literal, imaginative and poetic, as he calls it – of associations and rememberings. “Space,” he writes, “is compressed time. That is what space is for.” And this seems to me exactly so, at least insofar as I understand him.


The failure, so far, to obtain the perfect fly leaves us only with deficient approximations and the assorted rationales for them that we bring to the water. They fill out our fly boxes, which themselves then constitute a kind of metatheory, gathering together, without necessarily reconciling, all the discrete and sometimes self-contradictory conjectures about trout that we have embodied in trout flies and accumulated over the years in our vests.

That is not exactly the typical stuff found in the typical fly fishing book, and perhaps not the kind of reading best suited for times when the eyelids are getting heavy. I think this is important to know. To be truthful, I was struggling a little with this book, and just not feeling it. I was forced to admit that I needed to bring more to the book than I had been, so I stopped using it as bedtime reading. I decided to read it only during those times of the day when I could focus. This worked out much better. So just be aware, this is not light reading. It is a book that expects something from the reader.

It is not a book about fly fishing: This is just a little warning, this is not a book about fly fishing, and in spite of what you might infer from the title it is really not a book about Montana. Sure, this book wears some fly fishing accoutrements and the action takes place in Montana, but don’t let that fool you. I bring this up because if all you want is a bunch of fly fishing anecdotes, you will be disappointed, and this is not the book for you. However, that is not to say that there aren’t fly fishing stories, and keen observations about the fly fishing life – there are plenty of both – but in the case of this book they are not an end in themselves, they are building blocks of a greater whole.

So, what is it about then? On the surface it is a book about a group of friends and their annual gathering together in a rented house in the Madison River Valley of Montana. But really, just under the surface a little, this is a book about ideas. In general, it has a lot to say about one particular idea – the idea of the metonym. And more specifically about the metonym of Montana. So you may ask, “What the heck is a metonym?”

Merriam-Webster says: a metonym is a word used in metonymy. So what is metonymy? Again from Merriam-Webster: metonymy is a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated. For example when I say “I love the mountains”, the phrase “the mountains” is being used as a metonym. I don’t just mean that I love these huge geologic formations made out of rock, but I mean that I love all that I experience in the mountains. Or as Ted Leeson explains:

What I call “Montana” is a kind of shorthand…a metaphor of sorts – or more precisely a metonym, that figure of speech in which we name the container to stand for what it contains…We give to things the name of the enclosure that holds them all because the parts themselves are sometimes inexpressible on their own…A figure of speech gathers them together under one roof…

And so this book is really about the experience of creating and filling that container called Montana. We are all creating our own “Montanas”, our own metonyms, all of the time – we just may not realize it. Mr. Leeson has given me the word to describe what I’ve been doing with Fly Fishing for a long time now. Fly fishing, for me (and probably for you) is a container that holds many special things. It is a metonym – I just never knew it.

Please don’t be frightened off by the discussion of containers and metonyms. Because in the end this book is just full of great writing. Great writing about fly fishing and about the practitioners of fly fishing and the quarry and the environs of fly fishing. I don’t think you’ll find any better. If Inventing Montana gets a little didactic from time to time that should be quickly forgiven; the keen, spot-on observations and wonderfully elegant sentences more than make up for that.

Here’s an example from one of my favorite passages:

The ordinary challenges of abstract reasoning are much reduced for the angler, since he does not regard a deficiency of facts as any great obstacle and willingly manufactures vast generalities from a single anomalous fishing event…This does not so much suggest impaired faculties as enthusiasm, and if such theoretical constructs have much in common with a one-legged stool, the angler will happily point out that they might still bear weight if you sit just so.

So if you decide to take on Inventing Montana, you may be challenged a little, but I think that you will be sufficiently rewarded for the effort. Ted Leeson, has written a really good book, and in the process he has created a container to contain all that is good about fly fishing writing (or maybe just writing in general). In the future maybe “Inventing Montana” will be synonymous with the act of creating great fly fishing literature. When you sit down to write that great fly fishing book, you’ll be Inventing Montana.

Disclosure: I obtained Inventing Montana independently and was not given a review copy by the publisher.

7 Comments on Book Review: Inventing Montana by Ted Leeson

  1. Thanks for the full review. I’ve been meaning to pick up some Leeson for some time, and I’m guessing that this isn’t quite the place for me to start, although it sounds like quite book.

    • Personally I thought that Leeson’s Habit of Rivers was an easier read; it was more of a series of fly fishing anecdotes, with brilliant observations and beautiful writing – less philosophical. I haven’t read any others – but of the two I’d say Habit of Rivers is a more laid back reading experience than Inventing Montana. Though – based on some other reviews I’ve read, not everyone agrees with me.

  2. That’s good to hear. Habit of Rivers is the one currently on my wishlist, so maybe this will prompt me to get to it sooner rather than later.

  3. A very nice review, and relief for me, because I found the book beautiful, but very hard reading. You are spot-on to say this is not the typical “fly fishing book”, but also to say it is well worth a read. Thanks, Bob

  4. Bob,
    It is a complicated sort of book. But I’d be glad to have more like it. It felt a little like medicine sometimes, but I’m better for it.

  5. It took me nearly a year to get through this book. I started it on a trip to Montana in 2015 and it went back to Montana again with me on a second trip. I would read it little by little and really enjoy it. Agree with your assessment but would add that it’s well worth it. I first read Habits of Rivers which is also cerebral, just a bit less so and more accessible. But I love Leeson’s style. Next I will tackle Jerusalem Creek.

    • thanks for the comment – I really enjoyed Habit of Rivers and probably need to give Inventing Montana a second read. I’ve got Jerusalem Creek sitting in my “to read” pile as well.

      I’m curious – do you have good book recommendations? I’m always looking for a good read.

what say you?