Over the coming months, Nature’s Head of Press, Alice Henchley, will be reading and reviewing the books shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, at a rate of one every week. The winner will be announced at a public event at the Royal Society on the 25th November 2013 during which shortlisted authors will discuss their books with host Dara O Briain. Prior to the announcement, we’re running a competition on Of Schemes and Memes to win a set of the shortlisted books – all you have to do is predict the winning book and enter our prize draw.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson
When you first open the beautifully illustrated tome The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, you might think that it is a simple A to Z of the weird and wonderful creatures. But this would be a gross misrepresentation of the ambition of the author Caspar Henderson and the wealth of disciplines covered therein. Whilst the book does catalogue some extraordinary beasts (just as the bestiaries of the Middle Ages did), it’s also a vehicle to engage the reader in physiology, evolutionary biology, behaviour and psychology, history of science and palaeontology, all written with a graceful literary style.
The book is split into alphabetized chapters, each of which features a creature, so A is the cute-looking axolotl, an amphibian that is surely the inspiration for countless cartoons, and Z is the zebrafish, a creature commonly studied in scientific research. However, that is where the structure begins and ends. Some chapters focus entirely on the named creature, for example the leatherback turtle (and who wouldn’t want an entire chapter devoted to that charming animal). Others veer wildly off their original subject. The majority of the chapter on the Gonodactylus is dedicated to the evolution of different visual systems, including our own. This is, I conclude, no bad thing, given that the Gonodactylus is an unpleasant little mantis shrimp described as “the perfect killing machine”.
The diversity of the subjects covered adds much to the book. Nothing is predictable: every chapter is different and peppered with personal anecdotes and historical incidents. It’s a book that doesn’t force science upon you, but rather leads you gently into some unpredictable and entirely fascinating areas. Henderson isn’t afraid to express his own opinion either and his sense of humour pervades the book. His description of an army spokesperson denying the use of “man-eating badgers” particularly tickled me.
I am predisposed to liking this book. The natural world has always fascinated me and I spent the last year of my long-forgotten degree in natural sciences in the zoology department. But had that not been the case, I would still extol its virtues. It is a glorious celebration of our extraordinary world, presented in a gorgeous volume and exuding wit and charm.
You can read Stuart Pimm’s Nature Books and Arts review of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings here.
Alice Henchley has been Head of Press at Nature since the start of 2013. Prior to that she worked at the Royal Society and the Zoological Society of London, communicating everything from population policy to conservation of the world’s most extraordinary animals.