The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary

by Caspar Henderson

Hardcover, 2013




University of Chicago Press (2013), Edition: 1, 448 pages


In the spirit of medieval bestiaries, presents a series of bizarre creatures that are very much a part of the real world, including the honey badger, giant squid, axolotl, zebrafish, waterbear, and yeti crab.

User reviews

LibraryThing member shanaqui
Caspar Henderson's 21st Century Bestiary is not an encyclopaedia, as some people might expect, but something more in the medieval tradition of bestiaries, mixing information with philosophical and moral comment. It's interesting, and Henderson's ideas are well expressed, and I imagine a full colour version of the book must be stunning (my own is the paperback, all in black and white, but I seem to recall seeing a colour edition). It's definitely not all that scientific, in places, relying on anecdote and going off on tangents into what an organism might have to teach us.

One of Henderson's major concerns is the environment, and the preservation of Earth's current biodiversity, for which he makes a good case. Ultimately, if your interest is science, this will probably be unsatisfying: it's here to demonstrate some of the scope of biodiversity, not to explain it, or even to go very deeply into any one scientific principle (though it touches on plenty).

I do wish it had been better edited -- the typos and such are extremely distracting. All in all, it isn't quite as good as I'd expected from the rave reviews and my quick glance over it in the shop, but it is interesting.
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LibraryThing member Michael.Rimmer
An A-Z listing of some (generally) little known creatures which the author uses as springboards for more general musings.

The author chose an eclectic and unusual choice of animals and part of the fun of the book is seeing where he would go with them. Not a book to buy if you want detailed zoological information, but an interesting and diverting set of essays about life, the universe and everything.… (more)
LibraryThing member Widsith
Taking his cue from medieval bestiaries, Caspar Henderson set out to write a modern compendium of beasts, and show, in the process, that truth is a lot weirder than fiction. Forget about your griffons and basilisks, and check out things like the waterbear pictured above (in extreme close-up; they're only about half a millimetre long), the rainbow-coloured spider known as a sparklemuffin, or the aptly named thorny devil.

As so often with books about wildlife, one comes away with the sense that nature has a sexual imagination to make the Marquis de Sade look like a guileless schoolgirl. Turbellarian flatworms, for instance, ‘which are hermaphrodites, engage in spectacular penis fencing, using two phalluses mounted on their chests as weapons with which they attempt to pierce and impregnate each other’. Like prep school. And don't get me started on dolphins. Dolphins are filthy.

Dolphins court and make love the year round, and with lots of foreplay – they rub, caress, mouth and nuzzle each other's genitals. Both males and females have a genital slit, so penetration is possible in both sexes, and the penis, the tip of the nose (the beak), lower jaw, dorsal or pectoral fin, and tail fluke are all used. Female Spinner dolphins have been observed riding ‘tandem’ on each other's dorsal fin, the female beneath inserting her fin into the genital slit of the other and the two swimming together in this position. Spinner dolphins of both sexes sometimes engage in orgies of more than a dozen individuals, known as ‘wuzzles’.

Now we know why the little fuckers are always grinning. Wuzzles! This sounds like something Berlusconi's PA would be asked to set up.

A preponderance of the creatures highlighted in here are marine animals, just because the sea has so many creatures that seem completely bizarre to us, from entire separate phyla of existence.

Still, anyone coming into this book for pure zoological detail might end up disappointed, since Henderson uses his biological sketches as jumping-off points to talk about a whole range of disparate subjects, from early photography to AI to the history of human flight. Some readers have found this frustrating, but – while it's true that he can't get into much of anything in detail – this is an essay technique that should be familiar to most users of Goodreads; there are some people on here, after all, who can write a whole disquisition on neoplatonism or the internal combustion engine while purporting to review The Girl on the Train. Amidst the animal facts, then, are comments like this:

[A]s Umair Haque (2011) argues, there is a massive malfunctioning of the global economy, and at the root of the problem is ‘dumb growth’, which, ‘rather than reflecting enduring wealth creation, largely reflects the transfer of wealth: from the poor to the rich, the young to the old, tomorrow to today, and human beings to corporate persons.’

This may sound beside the point, but in fact it comes to feel like one of the guiding themes of the book. To address non-human animals at all is to address the ongoing ‘sixth extinction’, a grotesque inequality of power and influence to set alongside the economic inequalities listed above, and to which it has a more than incidental connection. This fact, and the human society and culture that has made it possible, are never far from Henderson's thoughts, and in the end to me this made his book stronger rather than weaker.
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