After Jorge Luis Borges assembled his “Book of Imaginary Beings” in 1957, he invited his readers to dip into its collection of 120 mythical and folkloric beasts at random, “just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope.”
That approach will serve readers equally well as they rummage through the thicket of fact, fiction and balderdash that makes up Michael Largo’s “The Big, Bad Book of Beasts.”Did you know that nearly four-fifths of an electric eel’s anatomy is dedicated to housing its electricity-producing organs? Or that there was a now-extinct animal known as the hallucigenia that had seven pairs of legs, six sets of tentacles and a head without eyes, ears or mouth? Or that ravens and wolves work together to locate and tear apart the remains of large animals? Flip open this book and you can’t help but discover something equally marvelous.
Alternatively, you will learn that the concept of a dragon might be a vestigial memory of when dinosaurs “coexisted with humans” (fossil record be damned). This is just one of Largo’s numerous half-hearted lunges at crossing the chasm between the real and the mythical in the name of entertainment.
Unlike Borges, who focused on mythical and fictional beasts in his collection, Largo wanders all over the map, including living animals both rare and common, microscopic creatures (such as the fascinating and essentially immortal “water bears”), mythological creatures, extinct animals and local folk tales.
The result is something like an animal-themed printout of the Internet’s collected “Can You Believe It?!” moments, lacking a unifying context or voice that could help turn these parts into a more meaningful whole.
That said, anyone who wades into the ocean that is “The Big, Bad Book of Beasts” with an open mind and a functional sense of skepticism is likely to emerge with insight into the glory of the natural world. At his best, Largo approaches seemingly prosaic beasts (cats, dogs, horses) and delivers anecdotes and observations that let readers see the familiar in a new light. Did you know, for example, that ancient sailors appreciated cats for their ability to sense oncoming storms?
What “The Big, Bad Book of Beasts” lacks in focus, it makes up for with its ability to inspire wonder. It’s a big, bad, busy world out there, and this at times overly enthusiastic tome celebrates some of its most interesting walking, flying and swimming inhabitants.
Norton edits a Midwestern food journal called the Heavy Table and is the author of “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.”