At the back of the fourth floor of the library were the oversized books and, among them, I once discovered an assortment of medieval bestiaries.
Sometimes I spent the entire day at the campus library on Sundays, and I would allow myself to browse and wander when I needed a break: these were the perfect distraction.
Partly because I’d been reading for ages and could only admire the pictures in these (because I couldn’t understand the languages they were written in). And partly because they were simply marvellous.
Housed in those practical, colourless bindings that dot the shelves of academic libraries, there were no flaps or blurbs to read, nothing to tell me if, in fact, the people who had created these reference works actually saw these beasts or truly believed they existed.
I was studying history; I wanted to know the facts about these creatures; but, all I could do was look and wonder.
Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary has flaps and blurbs, and these clearly explain that the creatures in this volume do exist.
They are “real creatures that are often more astonishing than anything dreamt in the pages of a medieval bestiary”, the flap assures.
(Ah, so it seems those critters housed in the oversized books shelves were truly imagined, not barely imagined.)
And the blurbs are terrifically inviting. For instance:
“An utterly extraordinary book: a glorious and genre-bending grimoire; a spell-book of species that entranced me from its first page. Wonderful in the richest senses of the word, as well as witty-moving, urgent and beautiful.” So says Robert MacFarlane.
Beyond flaps and blurbs, the text presents these creatures alphabetically, though not rigidly so. ‘U’, for example, is of course (and perhaps you knew this was coming) for ‘Unicorn’.
[I read ‘U’ out of order because Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros had piqued my interest in unicorns last year. It turns out that Goblin Sharks are just as interesting — though less commonly encountered in fiction.)
The prose is somewhat formal, yet accessible, even for non-science-y sorts (like me). For example, in discussing the narwhal’s tusk, in the context of his search for a ‘modern unicorn’, Caspar Henderson writes:
“It is a hydrodynamic sensor capable of detecting changes in salinity, temperature, pressure and particle gradient in ways unmatched by anything else known in nature. The likely fate of the narwhal, moreover, makes it a good candidate: rapid climate change and other perturbations in the Arctic may soon send it to the same place as mythical beasts that never were.”
Its accessibility is secured by the occasional colloquial segue, as when he comments on the physical description he has just provided of the shark:
“This is one ugly shark, and at first glance you have to wonder if even its mother could love it. (Scientists think it gives birth to live young.) But look closer and it has a quality that a friend of mine once attributed to himself in a lonely-hearts add: radiant inner beauty.”
The Goblin Shark is discussed at some length, though this chapter is one of the shorter ones, fewer than ten pages. ‘A’ for Axolotl and ‘Q’ for Quetzalcoatlus are more than twenty pages a piece. The majority of the creatures’ segments fall somewhere in between.
(Before I read the ‘A’ chapter, despite blurbs and flaps to the contrary, I was convinced that the axolotl must be imaginary. But, no.)
There is an impressive list of sources presented in the bibliography, encouragingly arranged by chapter title, so that a reader with a particular interest in that creature need not comb through a formidable string of relevant endnotes, but can simply approach the catalogue or bookshop with a ready-made list in hand.
There are also two appendices, one explaining biological classifaction and the other explaining the eons discussed (text and image), which are very helpful for the non-science-y readers.
And, delightfully, there are neither endnotes nor footnotes, but along-the-way notes. (Here’s an example from very early in the book: don’t worry, no spoilers!)
Therein, you are as likely to find quotes from Borges or Calvino as you are to find definitions, statistics, quotations and additonal information. (And somehow, this style of notation ensures that I read every note, with no question of disrupting the text overtly — either at the bottom of the page, or with the mental wrestling over whether to flip to the back now or later — with only a soft nudge in the note’s direction.)
Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings has won the heart of this fiction reader, catalogued under ‘H’ for Human.
Day 23 of 45: Officially half-way. I am living a House of Anansi blur: I expect to find Hercules in Caspar Henderson’s book under ‘D’ for dachshund. When I am falling off to sleep, I think I see Beauvoir sitting on the radiator with Ava Lee. And, in my dreams. a pair of loons is taking the train.
And, how about you: how is your reading month so far? Is there a particular HOA title that has caught your reader’s eye?