From medieval bestiaries to Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, we’ve long been enchanted by extraordinary animals, be they terrifying three-headed dogs or asps impervious to a snake charmer’s song. But bestiaries are more than just zany zoology—they are artful attempts to convey broader beliefs about human beings and the natural order. Today, we no longer fear sea monsters or banshees. But from the infamous honey badger to the giant squid, animals continue to captivate us with the things they can do and the things they cannot, what we know about them and what we don’t.
With The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson offers readers a fascinating, beautifully produced modern-day menagerie. But whereas medieval bestiaries were often based on folklore and myth, the creatures that abound in Henderson’s book—from the axolotl to the zebrafish—are, with one exception, very much with us, albeit sometimes in depleted numbers. The Book of Barely Imagined Beings transports readers to a world of real creatures that seem as if they should be made up—that are somehow more astonishing than anything we might have imagined. The yeti crab, for example, uses its furry claws to farm the bacteria on which it feeds. The waterbear, meanwhile, is among nature’s “extreme survivors,” able to withstand a week unprotected in outer space. These and other strange and surprising species invite readers to reflect on what we value—or fail to value—and what we might change.
A powerful combination of wit, cutting-edge natural history, and philosophical meditation, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is an infectious and inspiring celebration of the sheer ingenuity and variety of life in a time of crisis and change.
Tangentially inspired by Jorge Luis Borges s Book of Imaginary Beings, and assembled like a cabinet of curiosities, journalist Henderson s first book highlights what nonhuman species reveal about being human. The disarmingly human face of the Axolotl salamander introduces a reflection on evolution, which wanders into the history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, before landing on the question of what the Axolotl s ability to regenerate limbs can reveal about stem cells. It s an oddly anthropomorphic argument to abandon anthropomorphism, but as exotic salamanders and transparent octopi give way to miniscule water bears, whiskered owlets, and the honey badger, Henderson s contagious awe of life effortlessly advances his argument. The captivating habits of these beings are given significant scientific backbone, before digressing into a free-flowing discourse. As Henderson admits, such efforts yield some fairly abstruse connections. The moray eel and its monstrous pharyngeal jaw links easily to our fascination with horrors of the deep, but not as clearly to D.H. Lawrence s interpretation of Moby Dick and the atom bomb. The heart of the book lies in chapters such as the one deconstructing the Macaque monkey, a hierarchal species that mirrors both our own social Darwinism and our better heroic nature.