There’s something about a collection. We seem to harbour an urge to amass and sort as we build menageries, museums, taxonomies. And the illustrated book is a portable simulacrum, a paper cabinet of curiosities, curated for maximum aesthetic punch.
This year, my favourites include coffee-table tomes on the Solar System and early voyages from Europe to Latin America. The rest, as with those I prized most last year, focus on fauna — a reflection of the emphasis on animal intelligence, behaviour, extinction and resurrection in popular-science publishing. Our obsession with Animalia is unstoppable. In some important way, the thread has yet to snap between us and the humans who, 35,000 years ago, layered exquisite images of bison, lion and rhino on the walls of Chauvet cave.
Among the eight illustrated books that leapt out at me, Endangered (Abrams) won the long jump. On the cover, a crowned sifaka lemur tightly clutches its knees, citrine eyes staring with alien intensity. Inside is a virtuosic gallery of species at the edge: the bulbous topography of a hippo’s face; Mexican free-tailed bats slicing up the sky; a long-range shot of a polar bear curled in snow, white on white. Complementing Tim Flach’s hyper-stylised images are commentary by Jonathan Baillie, the National Geographic Society’s chief scientist, and writer Sam Wells.
Biodiversity loss has also gripped self-styled “gonzovationist” and illustrator Ralph Steadman for years, as his 2015 Nextinction showed. Now, in Critical Critters (Bloomsbury), Steadman (with Ceri Levy) pictures another bevy of beasts, exuberantly splatting his way from iconic megafauna such as tigers to dugongs, wombats and a red squirrel in burnt orange, ears aflame. The irrepressible Steadman includes the ‘grunting spiked turt’, a chameleon-like animal that should exist, but doesn’t.
Insects that did exist, yet look impossible, feature in Levon Biss’s photographic feat Microsculpture (Abrams). Biss (whose work can also be seen in this film) imaged the world’s oldest insect collection at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, including specimens bagged by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Each bravura photograph incorporates some 8,000 separate shots, from the ornate tortoise beetle — a rococo delight — to the ghostly short-nosed weevil.
More entomological glory flutters in Mariposas Nocturnas (Princeton University Press), photographer Emmet Gowin’s hard-won homage to South American lepidoptera. From Brazil to Panama and over two decades, Gowin shot over 1,000 species of nocturnal moths alive. Arranged in typologies of 25, they form a morphologically varied, vividly hued patchwork. As Gowin writes, “By loving the minutiae, we find the whole.”
Long before photography, engravers and printers battened upon beasts as evocative subjects for artworks and books — not just bestiaries and early natural-history tomes, but also allegories, illustrated tales and even playing cards. Animal (Bloomsbury) tells that story through powerful, often deeply strange works from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, deftly curated by editors Rémi Mathis and Valérie Seuer-Hermel from the National Library of France collection.
The cutting-edge imaging technologies of today feature in Dinosaur Art II (Titan Books), edited by artist Steve White. This follow-up to the 2012 Dinosaur Art features works of scientific precision and nuanced beauty by 10 top painters, modellers and digital artists. Among many standouts are Sergey Krasovskiy’s oil painting of the giant-jawed, tiny-limbed Pycnonemosaurus nevesi and a digital portrayal of the mysterious duck-billed Deinocheiris mirificus by Andrey Atuchin.
Zooming out from deep time to deep space, The Planets (Chronicle Books) by writer Nirmala Nataraj mines the NASA archives for a thrill-a-minute tour of our cosmic neighbourhood. It’s a handsome array, from the flow of dunes in Mars’s Nili Patera caldera, caught by the HIRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, to an opulently hued backlit view of Saturn captured by Cassini’s wide-angle camera.
In mapping the Solar System, it’s easy to forget that swathes of Earth were uncharted five centuries ago, and indigenous Americans and Europeans had yet to meet. When they did, starting with Columbus’s 1492 voyage, a “vertiginous transformation” began, reminds historian Daniela Bleichmar in Visual Voyages (Yale University Press). It spelt immeasurable devastation for New World peoples even as their knowledge rewrote the Old World’s book of nature. As this fascinating, sensitively written book attests, this revolution, in turn, kickstarted a frenzy of printing and cartography to frame the barrage of botanical, zoological, anthropological and geographic data.
For Nature‘s full coverage of science and culture, see http://go.nature.com/2CMOwaL.