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

by Caspar Henderson

Hardcover, 2013




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


From medieval bestiaries to Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings, we've long been enchanted by extraordinary animals, be they terrifying three-headed dogs or asps impervious to a snake charmer's song. But bestiaries are more than just zany zoology--they are artful attempts to convey broader beliefs about human beings and the natural order. Today, we no longer fear sea monsters or banshees. But from the infamous honey badger to the giant squid, animals continue to captivate us with the things they can do and the things they cannot, what we know about them and what we don't. With The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson offers readers a fascinating, beautifully produced modern-day menagerie. But whereas medieval bestiaries were often based on folklore and myth, the creatures that abound in Henderson's book--from the axolotl to the zebrafish--are, with one exception, very much with us, albeit sometimes in depleted numbers. The Book of Barely Imagined Beings transports readers to a world of real creatures that seem as if they should be made up--that are somehow more astonishing than anything we might have imagined. The yeti crab, for example, uses its furry claws to farm the bacteria on which it feeds. The waterbear, meanwhile, is among nature's "extreme survivors," able to withstand a week unprotected in outer space. These and other strange and surprising species invite readers to reflect on what we value--or fail to value--and what we might change. A powerful combination of wit, cutting-edge natural history, and philosophical meditation, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is an infectious and inspiring celebration of the sheer ingenuity and variety of life in a time of crisis and change.… (more)

User reviews

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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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)


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