When I was a child, one of my favorite books was a reference guide to all of the monsters and otherworldly creatures in H.P. Lovecraft’s massive bibliography. It didn’t matter that I had never actually read one of Lovecraft’s stories, the illustrations and descriptions of each oddity captivated my ten-year-old self in a way that few other books could.
My fascination with animals both real and fictitious has continued to this day, but that’s hardly a unique quality. Since the beginning of time, man has been observing, painting, writing and fanaticizing about animals from the mundane to the monstrous. Go back throughout our history, and you’ll find that every form of documentation we had at our disposal contains some mention of the animal kingdom.
It’s easy to understand where this fascination comes from. They’re alive like us, and yet so different and strange in so many ways. We have used animals to explain why the sun rises and sets each day, to serve as imagery for gods and demons, and as harbingers of great fortune and great sorrow. Ultimately, animals capture our imaginations.
That’s why, according to author Michael Largo, bestiaries – encyclopedias chronicling our knowledge and mythology about the animal kingdom – spent hundreds of years outselling every other book except the Bible in the Western world. The uniqueness of these bestiaries is that they would present mythical creatures like dragons and unicorns alongside common animals like horses and dogs. Since much of the world was still foreign and unexplored to these readers, who was to say that there weren’t dragons circling mountains in the Far East or giant turtles the size of islands luring ships to a watery grave?
With that spirit in mind, Largo has created an exhaustive bestiary for the 21st century that covers everything from cats to chupacabras. It’s a labor of love – anything this wide reaching would have to be – and that love comes through in the attention to detail on every page.
The Big, Bad Book of Beasts is a thick read at 464 pages, with entries ranging from a paragraph to several pages in length. You won’t learn everything about a given animal by reading this book, but each entry does a great job at highlighting some must-know facts that provide a decent foundation to understanding how each animal lives, breeds, and ultimately dies.
In fact, I’ve found myself repeating facts from the book during conversations with my friends. Did you know that polar bears are not white? Their hair is transparent and merely reflects the color of snow and glaciers. And has there ever been a more appropriate term than a cackle of hyenas? These are the types of conversations I’m having with people now, and it’s a credit to Largo’s writing that so much information is so easily digested to be recalled at a later time.
The real highlights of The Big, Bad Books of Beasts are the mythical creatures interspersed throughout the sections (the book is divided by letter and alphabetized). Largo does a great job digging into the history of each of these creatures, and ultimately tackles the question of whether or not they could have been real. My favorite case of mistaken identity goes to the barn owl, who likely was mistaken for a banshee by drunken villagers stumbling home at night.
If you have any curiosity about the animal kingdom or just the world around you at large, The Big, Bad Book of Beasts is a wonderful read. The short entries make it perfect for picking up and flipping through if you only have a few minutes of down time, but there’s also enough variety to keep you curled up in bed for hours, imagining beasts from far-away lands the same way that bestiary readers have been doing for hundreds of years.
The Big, Bad Book of Beasts by Michael Largo book review/ paperback, 464 pages / William Morrow Paperbacks, April 16, 2013
(This novel was reviewed with a copy provided by the publisher. Cameron Gidari is a freelance writer and the author of Seattle Before8. Follow him on twitter at CGidari)