by Caspar Henderson
A 21st Century Bestiary.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is a modern take on the medieval idea of a bestiary of wonderful animals.
As anyone interested in the natural world knows, all animals are wonderful in their own way, so Caspar Henderson's choices of which beasts should appear in his book is fairly arbitrary. But I have to say, I was impressed with how few of his choices were terrestrial vertebrates. We ground-dwelling tetrapods tend to forget just how many wonderful creatures live in the seas and oceans, and that the vast majority of animal species don't have backbones.
Henderson has arranged his chapters alphabetically, dedicating each one to one—or occasionally more than one—animal species whose name begins with that letter. His chapter heading go all the way from Axolotl to Zebra Fish. Each chapter is charmingly illustrated, with appropriate ‘footnotes’ appearing in red ink in the margins—just as they might in an old-fashioned bestiary.
In each chapter, Henderson typically explains what it is that makes the creature under discussion remarkable, then goes off on a tangent to discuss some general idea or principle sparked by his description of the animal. For example, I particularly liked the way his discussion of the nautilus's eye led him to discuss the idea of the camera obscura, which eventually led to the development of photography.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is an unusual and charming book. I enjoyed it a lot.