The Book of Barely Imagined Beings takes its cue from medieval bestiaries. Author and playful intellectual Caspar Henderson sets out to write a modern compendium of beasts, and show, in the process, that truth is a lot weirder than fiction. Forget about dragons, cyclops and faeries, the world of extant species such as the thorny devil, nautilus and puffer fish are enough to inspire wonder.
The gold panelled lettering, typesetting, typography and the old-fashioned one colour etchings of strange barely believable (yet real) creatures are outstanding. They make the book seem far older than it is (published in 2013). There is a lot in common here with medieval bestiaries in the way the book is presented. Opening it up and browsing the pages is enough to give bibliophiles rushes of pure joy!
Hendersen swiftly segues from one topic to another. If you would like to read about weird creatures in a purely biological context and focus on animal facts, this is not the book for you. I recommend the (far more dry and boring) book by Richard Dawkins, The Ancestors Tale. Which is more for science purists and talks in very plain language about the attributes and phylogenic features of different species.
Instead though, the Book of Barely Imagined Beings is a whistle-stop tour of philosophy, humanism, spirituality, evolutionary biology, literature, AI, technology and more.
These weighty topics are tackled deftly and confidently and are interspersed with facts about the most macabre and unusual creatures on the planet. If you are after a secular and non-religious book about the wonders of nature, and the miraculous nature of life in general – this is it.
The A-Z animal miscellany begins with the axolotl, the disarmingly cute salamander with a large flat head and friendly grin, which has the ability to regenerate its limbs after they are cut off. We hear about how this cutie of the salamander world became known to the ancient Greeks and in medieval England and various other things
The chapter on barrel sponges could have been a straight-forward chapter in the hands of a less skilled writer. In Henderson’s case he uses the barrel sponge to talk about symmetry in living creatures and what is means to be an animal and also we plunge headlong into a consideration of deep time and what it means to contemplate billions of years of life on earth – of which humans are only a tiny part.
This book is fantastic, one of my favourite nature/natural history books of all time. I recommend you hunt it down. Buy it on Book Depository here.