Saturday, 22 January 2011

A book review - "The Natural History Book" from Dorling Kindersley

My books are my favourite possessions...I have a small, but cherished collection of natural history books (about 150) and I love everyone of them.  Now this is not because I am lose with my affections, but because I am choosy and only buy books that I know will enlighten, delight and enthuse.  I admire the art, I pour over the prose and I embrace the science.  I think that maybe I am quite hard to please, however here's another gem for my collection...

The other day, out of the blue, I received an email from Dorling Kindersley who asked me to provide some feedback on their on-line natural history quiz, which they have set up to compliment and promote their new book "The Natural History Book".  I felt very flattered to be asked and for this simple act, they very kindly sent me a copy of the book.

First of all this is a BIG book at 648 pages with 5000 images.  It is truly encyclopaedic and it is obvious from the outset that it has been put together by some very clever people.  It does not shy away from some hard science, as it reflects the natural world through the currently recognised "taxonomic" classification.  What an endeavour - the whole of natural history (including rocks and fossils) in one tome!

Now there are probably 10 million plants, animals and fungi out there, so how can you chose what to include.  Well the answer is you get some of the familiar and some of the oddities to try to reflect the true diversity of life.  So when I looked at this book I looked for some of my old friends (yes there were some there) then, once reassured, could revel in the new-but-familiar, and many down right weird ones.

My background is in the sciences (although I have now lapsed and just look on admiringly), so the format appealed to me straight away.  Order runs through scientists like the proverbial Brighton through the rock, and this books oozes this systematic scientific approach to the natural world, but in an easily understood way.

Each page contextualises the plants and animals into their kingdoms, classes, orders etc..  Each species is given its full English and scientific name and a short description, including identifying features and where it is found.  Sometimes its habitat is also mentioned.  In addition to these, each order has a more detailed description and for some species there are feature articles.  This nicely breaks up the book's structure to provide a deeper insight into some of the "stars".

The pages of this book remind me those exciting, and slightly secret,  museum specimen cabinets that most people ignore, but which invite the curious to open the up and peak inside.  Each drawer holds another set of wonders from some far away place and the specimens speak of adventures in hot climes, where the only company is the leech and mosquito.  However don't get me wrong - this book is not fusty and dull - its vibrant and exciting.  Each page stands out with brilliance displaying a wonderous range of species.

It is a book that will particularly appeal to a younger audience who have, or are acquiring, an interest in the natural world.  However don't think that only they will enjoy it.  I suspect that it also may act as the catalyst for an interest not previously discovered.  I really hope so, as what more can a book offer than to open a door to a lifetime of delight in the plants and animals that we share this planet with.  Who knows, maybe the next David Attenborough is out there and will be inspired by this book.

This is not a book to use to enable you to identify species, per se, but enables the reader to get a thorough overview and helps contextualise them.

Do I have any criticisms?  Maybe a a few small ones - I would have liked to have seen more detail at the front of the book about each subject, particularly habitats, which are so important in understanding species adaptations.  I am not sure why rocks have been included, although they are of course interesting. Also some of the animal images fall slightly short of DK's normal high standards, but I expect that is because they are very hard to come by - this is being really picky though, and in no way spoils my enjoyment of this book.

I am a big fan of DK travel books, but I must admit was rather ignorant of the breath of their range and so will be taking another look now to see what other gems are waiting to be discovered...

For more (short) natural history book reviews go to my website:

1 comment:

  1. I was looking at this book in Waterstones before christmas and had the same thoughts as you about it. It's on my 'books to buy' list :)


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