Book Review: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson

Book Review: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson

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

Book Review: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson
Each chapter is reminiscent of a medieval bestiary

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.

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson

  1. I’d probably go for the Dawkins first, need a primer of the topic. My evolutionary investigations have only gone as far as human. This one looks like you’d have to go for the print copy eh. I like the medieval fonts and GOLD!!

    1. Oh yeah…the print copy and in hardback makes it a very lovely reading experience. Also the gold lettering and the jacket cover….really beautiful. The etchings inside are in a dark red ink, it’s one of the most beautiful books I own. It’s one you don’t ever want to lend out or get rid of. I found Dawkins dead boring but you may like him, so don’t let me put you off 😉

    2. I am going to try and find a really amazing course I did on evolution of planetary life on Earth from the big bang to now, this was incredible. I did post a link but it turns out this was to a different inferior looking course on Coursera, will try and find it and let you know what it’s called. It totally changed how I see the world and made me realise how insignificant human life is compared to deep time and all that

      1. I don’t know Big History, is that a course or a book or something?

      2. Think it was a book yes. Certainly a course that’s been taken up in some schools. Puts history in a bigger frame…remember reading about it last year and liking the look of it.

  2. This is a great review and sounds like an amazing book. I will definitely try to hunt it down. I love exploring such topics and I believe that people do not even begin to imagine the kind of species (and their variety) that in fact roamed on earth and are now extinct or living morphed into something else.

    1. Yes so true! The most incredible creatures roam the earth and in some cases we don’t know about them, in other cases it’s that we have gotten so used to their weirdness that we don’t think that much about it. But the pangolin….the giraffe….the chameleon…the platypus…they are some weird ass creatures but yet we have got so used to them hehe. It’s nice to take a step back and appreciate their weirdness.

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