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Martyn Murray (North Berwick, Scotland)

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On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition
On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition
by Charles Darwin
Edition: Hardcover

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two beautiful things..., 9 Jun. 2011
This book has been produced on the premise that two beautiful things, when put together, make something even more beautiful, just like wine and cheese, a sail on the sea, the singer and a song, a dove on its leafy branch, a man and a woman. Right? Wrong! Our lives are just not that simple as a few seconds further thought will confirm. How about olives and custard, a modern highway beside a country cottage, an opera singer bugling a rock song, a bickering pair of ex-partners?

More than others, I would expect those in the world of art and literature to understand that a beautiful object becomes more beautiful through its harmonious relation to others. In a partnership, each must speak to the other--strikingly, wittily, subtly, shockingly, artistically--in one way or another but the conversation must take place and it must engage. Sadly in this edition, the powerful words of Darwin's Origin of Species and the illustrations--a series of stunning images and quotations taken from his other books, notably The Voyage of the Beagle and The Autobiography of Charles Darwin--do not speak to one-another at all. They lie in stark isolation on the same page, a conglomeration of words and images, as scrambled as a dog's breakfast.

To take just one example, Chapter 1 on "domestication" is full of Darwin's observations and explanations about breeding of domestic animals--pigeons, dogs, cattle, domestic hens. It could so easily have been illustrated by contemporary drawings and paintings, many by Darwin himself, of domestic breeds. What do we get? Tropical forests, HMS Beagle, Captain Fitzroy, flamingos, a photo of ants and extracts from the Voyage of the Beagle. It is the same throughout the book. Chapter 7 is about animal instincts and the behaviour of cuckoos, slave-making ants and the honey bee. Do we get photos and drawings of these species and their activities? Nope; it is illustrated with sketches of the Magellan straights, HMS Beagle (again), the Fuegians taken hostage by Captain Fitzroy and yet more extracts from the Voyage of the Beagle. The height of this madness is reached in Chapter 10 where the title page to the Origin of Species is reproduced with its twin quotations, all part of an illustrated story of Darwin's life that flows randomly through the book, yet this title page is of course part of this book appearing in its rightful place at the beginning (p xiii)! Only with rare exceptions such as in Chapter 12 (on oceanic islands) do we arrive at concordance, and oh what a difference that makes. To see for instance the vulnerability on the face of Robert Grant, Darwin's friend in Edinburgh, at the same time as we are reading about him is powerful, except that we suddenly notice we are not reading about him in the Origin of Species but in an extract from "The Autobiography of Charles Darwin".... aaargghh!

If there is a method in the mad layout, it is this: to plot the life of Charles Darwin in images and extracts and then superimpose it on the text of the Origin of Species. Was that a good idea? Do I need to answer that question? I cannot believe that the person who composed (if I can use that word) the layout of this book, or the people who supervised the process, bothered to actually read the Origin. Come on now - did you? In this post-modern world, must we ignore sustained intellectual argument in favour of flash image and sound bite? Do we gain some deeper artistic perspective by having our literary breakfast served à la scramble?

There is assuredly a niche for a properly illustrated first edition of On the Origin of Species. Sadly this book does not fill it, or at least fills it very awkwardly, and the opportunity to catch the 250th anniversary has now passed. As Darwin might have put it, the window of selective advantage has closed, and we have entered a long corridor of competition for publishing space from more trendy books. Let us hope that the 300th anniversary will not pass without publication of a new illustrated edition in which text and pictures are married together in blissful harmony - assuming we are still making books by then!

Four stars then, because it would be unthinkable to give the Origin any less, the illustrations in the Sterling edition are beautiful, the quotations enriching, the quality of printing high, and the introduction by David Quammen both thoughtful and illuminating. I reserve the fifth star for the 2059 illustrated edition.
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