The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson
I picked it up out of curiosity. It just sat on the new book shelf at the library; the front cover a mix of bizarre creatures, many in the form of letters. This book takes the idea of a medieval bestiary — all those lovely imagined beasts and the commentary on society they induced — and slathers it with the bizarre nature of our actual reality: the true fascinating stories of weird looking beasts within our own world. Through the examination of their appearance, lives, and other intricate details, he looks deep upon humanity itself, especially our interactions with these animals and what they represent within human society and identity. It’s a lovely book that explores life, society, and our impact on the world and each other in beautiful detail.
As stated in his introduction, this isn’t meant to be a full examination of the natural world.
This book is envisaged as an ‘aletheiagoria’ — a new coinage so far as I know, which alludes to phantasmagoria (a light-projected ghost show from mthe era before cinema) but uses the world ‘aletheia,’ the Greek for ‘truth’ or ‘revealing.’ It suggests (to me, at least) flickering ‘real’ images of a greater reality. I have tried to look at a few ways of being from different angles and, through ‘a wealth of unexpected juxtaositions’, explore both how they are like and unlike humans (or how we imagine ourselves to be) and also how their differences from and similarities to us cast light on human capabilities and human concerns.*
The book itself explores much more than just the animals themselves; it often wanders into fascinating analogies and digressions, where the author makes a deliberate attempt to use the animals to think with and ponder more than just the animals themselves. One of the major themes within the book is how evolutionary biology (and the scientific method contained within it) provides a “richer and more rewarding sense of the nature of existence than a view informed by myth and tradition alone**.” Through this lens, the author is able to examine the creatures in detail, but in any easy to approach manner. Written for the lay person, the majority of the discussions won’t be overly focused upon the biology of the creatures but upon their impact upon us. The digressions into philosophy, the consequences of humanity’s actions, and our impact upon the creatures will be just as relevant as the creature’s own stories. We are all intertwined, growing up on this same planet together, and the author writes of these connections beautifully.
Another interesting theme within the book is the ocean; two-thirds of the animals contained within are from the sea, and for a very good reason: the oceans inhabit seven-tenths of the surface and contain the vast majority of Earth’s biodiversity. It’s also full of great mysteries as one of the least well known areas on the planet. Some of the creatures examined will be far more alien than anything we’ve imagined, and others are familiar and almost comforting, yet their stories will weave a sense of connection and grief, for much of the great biodiversity and creatures within the sea suffer from the consequences of our overfishing, whaling industries, heavy amounts of pollution, and the acidification of the oceans due to climate change. Those connections between us and the world in which we live are laid bare within the tales of these creatures, and through them, we see aspects of ourselves, the soul of humanity, and what is revealed will be a challenge as much as it is liberating.
The creatures you find within these pages, some you may have heard of before such as dolphins are types of whales, but others may seem like alien lifeforms, bizarre if not perhaps frightening, but no less real. There may be no dragons or unicorns or mythical beasts of old in this bestiary, but what lies inside is a wealth of wonder and beauty, far beyond what we can even begin to imagine. So take your time, sit back, and walk with the author on this fascinating journey through some of the most fascinating and/or bizarre creatures that inhabit or have inhabited our planet.
* and ** taken from the Introduction.