It’s very seldom that I’ll buy a book having never read a review – never mind one where I have no idea what’s inside it. I came upon Dinosaurs: A Journey to the Lost Kingdom purely by chance in an independent bookshop in a nearby town, and found it hard to resist a cellophane-wrapped box sporting Charles Knight’s famous tumbling dryptosaurs. The choice of cover image seemed telling – surely anyone willing to plaster that all over their brand new publication was aiming at a very particular audience? So I took a punt. Happily, this handsome and fairly unusual book proved to be worth it.
Produced with the “authorisation and participation” of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, Dinosaurs: A Journey to the Lost Kingdom was written in French by Christine Argot and Luc Vivès and translated by Susan Schneider; its French title is Un jour avec les dinosaures, or ‘a day with the dinosaurs’. I may well be misinterpreting, and I haven’t seen the French version (nor can I read French, so yeah, moot) but the French title seems to tie the book more explicitly with the museum. After all, one can literally spend a day with the dinosaurs there. This makes sense, as the book’s chapters are themed around exhibits in the MNHN – specific dinosaurs, discoveries, artworks and skeletal mounts. I haven’t visited the museum, but if you have and enjoyed yourself, I’d say that this book is thoroughly indispensable. This is a book as much, if not more concerned with photography and artwork than prose, and it’s peppered with stunning images of the museum – both of individual exhibits, and the spectacular palaeontology gallery as a whole, all gorgeously reproduced.
This is not to say that this book will be of significantly lesser interest to anyone (like me) who’s never visited the MNHN – far from it. I love seeing inside spectacular natural history museums that I haven’t yet visited, and even those that I might never visit. I also enjoy reading the stories behind their development; tales of scientific endeavour and discovery, changing attitudes over time, and the interplay that scientific institutions like this have with popular culture. It’s the latter that I think this book handles particularly well. This is more a book about the science and artistry of palaeontology in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the human efforts behind Paris’ famous parade of specimens, than it is about the natural history of the animals themselves (although we do get some of that, too). For the average dinosaur enthusiast – the sort of person who’d pick up a book advertised with a famous Charles Knight painting – this will be more than welcome.
One of the book’s finest chapters concerns Diplodocus, and specifically the composite specimen that was cast and dispatched to museums around the world. Of course, one such cast is on display in Paris, where it can still be seen in its original, tail-dragging posture. The text covers succinctly the finding and naming of the animal, Andrew Carnegie’s involvement, and the arrival of the cast in Paris, where it caused a sensation. Included are numerous contemporary newspaper articles, paintings, models, photographs and cartoons, the majority of which I’d never seen before and were utterly fascinating. Diplodocus also gets a mention in Philippe Taquet’s introduction; Taquet notes that upon seeing the beast, the French president Armand Fallières was reduced to stammering, “Quelle queue! Quelle queue!” (Or: what a tail!) It’s a charming and captivating story that reminds the reader of just how much dinosaurs have captured the public imagination, right from the very beginnings of palaeontological science. The science and pop culture always go hand in hand – that interplay is always there.
Indeed, that’s probably the finest aspect of this book – other authors can be snobby about separating the science from what they see as the pulpy, pop culture side of humanity’s fascination with dinosaurs, but it feels as if this book embraces it. There’s plenty concerning the science here; from the discovery and reconstruction of the Bernissart Iguanodon (including much on the herculean efforts to restore and mount the delicate fossils), to the evolving ideas around theropod posture and sauropod lifestyles, to the grand efforts of MNHN scientists out in the field. I can also say that I’ve never seen Carnotaurus looking quite as handsome as it does here, lovingly photographed in all its skeletal glory, seemingly a horizontal-backed anachronism among a parade of dullard ‘terrible lizard’ reconstructions. At the same time, though, the museum’s collections are raided for artwork, by turns gorgeous and hilarious, and the work of those who would bring dinosaurs to a popular audience is celebrated in the best way. Charles Knight and Zdenek Burian even get special little biographical chapters all to themselves, and the text is interspersed with quotes from works of fiction that emphasise the magnificence of the dinosaurs, my favourite being from Ray Bradbury’s The Sound of Thunder:
“Out of the mist over a hundred yards away came Tyrannosaurus rex…It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest…The head itself, a ton of sculptured stone lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin.”
If the book has one significant flaw, it’s that it’s probably a little too focused on the earliest decades of palaeontology. While this does mean that the reader is treated to some real visual treats from that era, it also leaves one with the nagging feeling that modern-day palaeontology is being short-changed. Both science and art alike have advanced enormously in the last 20 years, and yet here (with one or two exceptions) modern reconstructions are reduced to ghostly watermarks inhabiting the edges of a few chapter introductions. Perhaps that’s the idea; it could be that the authors assume a certain familiarity in their readers. However, it isn’t quite made explicit, and the tone of much of the writing suggests that it is aimed at a broader audience than merely dinosaur enthusiasts. It could just be that I am missing some context, and I think that a reader who knows what they’re in for will get far more enjoyment out of it. All the same, it’s worth noting that this is a book much more about the history of dinosaur science and pop culture, as it relates to the MNHN, than anything else. Fans of vintage dinosauriana will be in their element; those looking for the latest news should look elsewhere. Equally, while there’s plenty to read and examine here while you’re downing a few overpriced beers in a bar in Schiphol, don’t expect reams and reams of information.
Nevertheless, if you feel that you’d enjoy (truly) vintage dinosaur art reproduced on gloriously glossy paper, alongside stunning photographs of the MNHN (by Eric Sander), then it’s worth giving this book a whirl. Given its attractive presentation in a wee box adorned with a Knight painting, it’d also make an ideal gift for a friend or loved one who might be into that sort of thing, especially as its picture-heavy format does make it feel a bit ‘gifty’. (With apologies for using that term.) If nothing else, it’s made me want to go back to Paris, just to see the fruits of all those scientists’ and artists’ labours over the decades, and that spectacular parade of skeletons that resulted. And I didn’t even care all that much for Paris…