cover image The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Caspar Henderson. Univ. of Chicago, $35 (448p) ISBN 978-0-226-04470-5

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. Agent: James Macdonald Lockhart, Antony Harwood, Ltd. (Apr.)