on 14 October 2012
An enchanting book, wise informative and entertaining. It lures us out of the parochialism of our species into a world of deep time populated by our almost unimaginable ancestors. Henderson leads us into a universe of wonders. Seen in the perspective of hundreds of millions of years, could we be just a little less important than we though we were? And the book is beautifully produced. My only grouse is that the name of the fantastic illustrator, Golbanou Moghaddas, does not appear on the title page.
on 22 October 2012
It's appropriate, in the case of Henderson's modern bestiary, that the book is both a thing of beauty and a challenge to our perception of beauty in nature. In an A to Z of some of the weird and wonderful creatures thrown up by the blind processes of evolution, Henderson has managed to turn his own curiosity about nature into a thought-provoking, complex expression of us and the rest of the earth. The breadth of research beggars belief and the use of marginalia to squeeze every ounce of information into the book is a playful and fascinating way of illuminating some of the ideas in the chapters. This is a book of delights to remind us why we should care about our increasingly imperilled planet and its bizarre and beautiful forces of transformation.
on 20 November 2012
As if there were not already a extraordinary range of strange animals in the world, the bestiaries of the medieval times included such creatures as barnacle geese growing on trees. In 1967, Jorge Luis Borges brought out _The Book of Imaginary Beings_, which chronicled animals imagined in _Gilgamesh_ and in the works of Kafka. When Caspar Henderson was looking through Borges's book, he realized that there are many real animals that are stranger than fictional ones. He isn't a biologist; he is a journalist and editor, but he realized he wanted to go exploring to find out more about the very strange creatures that evolution has come up with. He has brought out _The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary_ (Granta; to be published in America by the University of Chicago Press in April). This is a handsome book, with lots of whimsical illustrations; it is an abecedarium, with 27 chapters (the letter X which is often shortchanged in such books, here gets an extra chapter) from axolotl to zebra fish. Each chapter starts with an illuminated letter, incorporating something within the chapter. It is full of surprises, and Henderson's enthusiasm and wonder are infectious.
Let me describe just the first chapter on the axolotl, whose name we Americans who are old enough first encountered as one of Harvey Kurtzman's non sequitur running gags in _Mad Magazine_. The weird word refers to a weird little animal, a salamander with pink skin, arms with fingers and legs with toes, gills that branch out from its neck, and an oversized spheroid head with a fixed, placid smile. Henderson writes, "Axolotls have this advantage over many other species in a human-dominated world: many people find them cute." They are popular for the home aquarium trade. It is lucky that they can thrive in glass pools, because the Mexican lakes from which they come are increasingly being drained or polluted. (A distressing number of the animals on these pages are listed as "critically endangered." Almost always, the problem is global warming or some sort of encroachment by humans. Henderson reminds us that in 2008, geologists agreed to call the current age the Anthropocene, to acknowledge that humans are the biggest influence on Earth's systems.) There is a digression (Henderson's prose is clear and it agreeably wanders off into instructive and entertaining byways) about how salamanders were long thought to be impervious to fire. A medieval bestiary says, "The salamander lives in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed; not only does it not burn, but it puts out flames." Few would question such an assertion at the time, especially since it had a second from St. Augustine, who said that a salamander not being consumed by flame was a good example to show how a soul could be burned in hell forever without being consumed. That's all baloney, but Henderson reports that axolotls do have a surprising ability, if not to regenerate themselves from flames, then to regenerate an arm or leg after an amputation, and even an eye or parts of the brain. If we learn better how the axolotl does it, human amputees might benefit.
I don't do e-books, partly because I am simply stodgy, but partly because I like a well-produced book as a physical object. This one is simply gorgeous; I don't know how an e-version would look and I don't want to know, but I will tell you in all prejudice to get the print version. Its text and its many pictures are supplemented with red ink. There are no footnotes as such, but marginal notes printed in red, with the text so annotated in red as well. The ample margins are also a playground for little illustrations or decorations. The book harks back to bestiaries of old, with lots of whimsical illustrations, frontispieces for every chapter, and illuminated capitals. It is a fine vessel for bringing a message of celebration of biological diversity and weirdness.
on 3 October 2012
I've only dipped into the text so far, and found it to be delightful - witty and profound by turns; my only very slight criticism is that I feel it could do with a little more darkness amid the generally enchanting descriptions of the animals - Henderson doesn't altogether ignore the fact that animals kill and eat, but it's a touch underplayed in comparison with the lighter aspects of morphology and behaviour. However, as an object, this book really is a thing of beauty, with the text and illustrations wonderfully integrated. It's an intellectual and aesthetic joy.
on 20 December 2012
My grandson aged four is mad keen on the Octonauts - so was delighted to see that this book included octopus, puffer fish and whale amongst many others. The conceit is such a clever one, leading from particular creatures in all directions; it is laid out beautifully and is a joy to read whether section by section or over a longer stretch. It has that nice old-fashioned sense of being a book to handle and treasure over the years. Friederike Huber, the text designer, deserves great credit too, as does Michael Salu, the designer. Certainly the most interesting and best produced book I have read this year. And at £11.25 for over 400 pages it must be a bargain too! The website [...].com will give you a good idea of the book and contains additional material to add to the package.
on 30 October 2012
This book chronicles some of the strangest of the creatures to inhabit this rock - ourselves included - their idiosyncrasies and our past ideas of them, illuminating aspects of ourselves, our environment and history as it does so.
Henderson writes beautifully and have obviously immersed himself in the subject matter, guiding the reader elegantly through the alphabet of creatures without a boring moment. There is no-one on earth who could read this book without learning something fascinating and marvel at the thing we call life (and perhaps shed a tear at what we have done, and are doing, to much of our life family).
It's also a beautiful piece of pulped wood, lovingly created by people who care about the craft of book making, type setting and illustration. Even if you (like me) own a Kindle, do buy the hardcover version. It might make it a bit more difficult to read on public transport, but will enhance your experience when reading on a park bench / in front on a fire / by the window in a storm / at a cafe / by a stream / in bed.
on 20 December 2012
I love this book.
I find it an absolute joy to end the day by opening up Barely Imagined Beings to read a few pages before sleep and have my mind opened to the incredible wonder of the world. I sit in bed every few nights and absorb the un-shouty and profound ponderings that Caspar brings, that follow so easily from his poetic descriptions of the weird and wonderful ways that life finds ways to be. Dolphins can see through you, in 3D? The chicken is the nearest living relative to the Tyrannosaurus Rex? The eye evolved in all those different ways? (I fail to do justice relying on my memory from my desk at work)
This is one of the most fun to read and thought-provoking books I've ever read. And one of the most philosophically rich.
If you've a brain, can read, and have any capacity for awe and wonder, I can barely imagine that you won't be delighted by this :)
I remember when I first saw this book in a bookshop, and mistakenly thought that it was a bestiary of imaginary creatures. Then, a few months later, I had a proper look at it and discovered that it's actually a bestiary for creatures that do exist but are perhaps stranger than the imaginary ones could ever be.
The research that has gone into this book is just astonishing. As a lover of the natural world, it is captivating to come across a writer who also has a passion for the wonders that nature has, and writes in a way in which this passion comes across. Hopefully his bestiary will inspire others to take more of an interest in the natural world. Henderson's prose is exquisite; he manages to infuse it with wit, philosophical enquiries as well as a simple beauty which brings the entries to life.
The production of the book is also a testament to how strange and beautiful the natural world is; there are beautiful illustrations for each letter, which echoes the illustrations of old bestiaries. The text has wide margins on each side, again giving the impression of an older, more traditional bestiary. You can easily imagine a scholar or academic making their own annotations in the margins, as they add to the knowledge within. My only regret is that I don't have the hardback edition; paperbacks are fine but if there is a book that I want to keep and use for a long time, then hardbacks are usually more robust.
Highly recommended - would make a wonderful gift for someone who has an interest in the natural world.
on 17 January 2013
Caspar Henderson's research is simply extraordinary, such that I found myself Googling creatures just to make sure he wasn't having us on! Indeed, the Googling increased in frequency the more I read, and began to include expert's names. Henderson's erudition is not limited to science as he peppers the text with references to literature, poetry and even popular music. Personally, I found his predilection for quoting witch-accuser (woman killer) Thomas Browne to be annoying, but as this is personal bias, he'll not lose a star.
The book is beautifully designed and illustrated. The latter only adding to the mystery of the creatures described, which I am sure would only have been demeaned by full-colour images. It is really sad that Granta, of whom I would have thought better, decided to provide a faux-hardback binding for this £25 book. Glued spines and card covers are not the way to stem the tide of virtual books.
Rants aside, this is a brilliant work - wholly recommended!!!
on 4 November 2012
Most inspring and thought-provoking book I've read in a long time. I bought this book as I am fanatic about strange creatures but found Henderson's thoughts on such topics as physics, philosophy and history to be the defining parts. Definitely my favourite work of non-fiction!