Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) is populated with fantastic creatures from literature and folklore: it contains such strange visions as the Humbaba, from an ancient Mesopotamian poem, whose tail and penis end in snapping snake’s heads, and the Celestial Stag of Chinese myth, a “tragic animal” that lives underground and melts into a “foul smelling liquid” on contact with fresh air.
The animals in Caspar Henderson’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a “21st-century bestiary”, are scarcely less wondrous than Borges’, but these are real. Take the axolotl, an amphibious Mexican cave-dweller with uncanny, human-like features, which is able to regenerate severed limbs. Or Venus’s flower basket, a sponge whose body forms “a translucent filigree cage” in which shrimps become trapped. Or, indeed, gonodactylus, a vicious crustacean that uses its hairy “gonad fingers” to disembowel its enemies.
Each entry begins with discussion of a particular species before opening out into an essay on a wider theme: the moray eel’s retractable jaw inspires an exploration into the human preoccupation with monsters, while the jumping spider prompts a mini-treatise on the workings of memory. The book is a gorgeous object, full of detailed illustrations and colourful typography.
Henderson’s erudition and digressive style lend the book the flavour of 17th-century miscellanies by Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. But this is in other respects a very modern work, imbued with an awareness of the fragility of nature. In focusing on mysterious, little-known animals Henderson seeks to alter our “sense of what is possible” in the natural world and to foster a concern for its less charismatic fauna. And, in that sense, this is not just a beautiful book – it is an important one.