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Rosamond Wolff Purcell & Stephen Jay Gould – Illuminations: A Bestiary

January 31, 2011

12. Illuminations: A Bestiary by Rosamond Wolff Purcell and Stephen Jay Gould (1986)

Length: 120 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction, Art, Science

Started / Finished: 22 January 2011

Where did it come from? Christmas present from my parents.
Why do I have it? It went on my wishlist roughly a million years ago when I was trying to round out my Stephen Jay Gould bibliography; I honestly didn’t really know what it was about until I had a copy in my hands.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 December 2010.

What museum staff
and time have stripped away, these
photos put right back.

Summary: Illuminations is an art book arranged as a bestiary. It’s got photographs taken by Rosamond Wolff Purcell, of all sorts of things that she found in the storerooms and collections of several natural history museums. Most images come with commentary by Stephen Jay Gould on the biology and evolution of the organisms in question, the process of preservation that they’ve undergone, and what we can tell about humanity by looking at the preserved remains of other species.

Review: I love natural history museums. The one time I’ve visited Paris, my absolute favorite part of all of the sightseeing we did was the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy at the National Museum of Natural History. What I loved most about it was not all of the stuff they had on display – although that was undoubtedly cool too – but the human touches, the marks of the collectors and scientists and museum staff that by comparison seem to be sanitized out of most American museums. I mean, they had collection labels that were hand-written by Lamarck! (Hey, I’m a biologist; this stuff’s cool to me. Don’t judge.)

I initially wanted a copy of Illuminations for the science aspect of it – because Stephen Jay Gould was an author. I had no idea before I started it that I would get not only the science, but also the museum aspect to add to my fascination, nor that Purcell’s stated point was to choose images that spoke to the intersection of human biases and the natural world. Jackpot! How many more of my interests (biology, museums, comparative zoology, and photography) can you cram into one book?

Gould’s prose is as wonderful as it is in his full-length essays, expanding upon the relevant biological details where necessary but also making the leaps to connect the biology to seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge and culture. The similarities between a preservation process that highlights an organism’s vascular system by stripping away outer layers of tissue, and Michelangelo’s conviction that he was merely revealing the figures that already lay inside his blocks of marble. The fact that the stone used for all the best lithographic plates comes from the same quarry as the only seven examples of the fossil Archaeopteryx, and that the same geologic processes are the cause of both. Gould’s writing is not particularly easy – he assumes a basic conversance with science, history, and art that not everyone may have ready-to-hand – but it’s also not heavy, as he skips from topic to topic with ease, and apparent joy.

But even if this book were prose-free, it would still be fascinating. Purcell’s pictures are the main focus here, as well they should be. While there are several images that are simply gorgeous on aesthetic merit, all of the images have something very clear to say. This book is a little bit grim to be a proper coffee-table book – many of the images have something to say about death, dissection, and decay that doesn’t make for particularly appetizing fare – but the very fact that we find an alizarin-stained monkey to be so disturbing is interesting in and of itself. Purcell and Gould set out to make a book that would make people think about death, and Life, and the process of preservation, and what that says about humans, and how we see our place in the world… and if my reaction is any judge, they succeeded admirably. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This would probably be best either for people who like art books with a sense of the macabre, or biology geeks who love natural history museums. (Or folks like me, who are both.)

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Death strips information from an organism, layer by layer.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 9: “Dry bones form our standard metaphor for the end of this process, though it goes futher to triturated dust.” – to reduce to fine particles or powder by rubbing, grinding, bruising, or the like; pulverize.
  • p. 10: “It comments upon life from a perspective that could not be more different from the traditional photographic essay in natural history, though it confutes or contradicts nothing about the ordinary mode.” – to prove to be false, invalid, or defective; disprove.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2011 8:32 am

    What a unique piece of work… that last photo reminds me of a desolate landscape.

    • January 31, 2011 9:52 am

      Omni – It’s actually a mastodon tooth against its cotton batting. Gould says that it reminds him of the Grand Tetons, and then gleefully points out that both mastodons and the Tetons were named for breasts, because of their general bumpy-but-rounded appearance. :)

  2. January 31, 2011 10:46 am

    I love Stephen Jay Gould and while in College I worked in my university’s collection of vertebrates (I did museum repair and taxidermy). Thus this book, which I had never heard of before, would be something I would adore. The photography also looks phenomenal … I’m so glad you did this review because this will be a must own/must find book for me.

    • January 31, 2011 11:05 am

      dragonfly – It’s been out of print for a while, but it’s still pretty easy to find gently-used copies on Amazon and the like. I hope you’re able to lay hands on a copy!

      I didn’t mention it in my review, but I also spent a fair amount of time with my college’s teaching collections, as a TA for Vertebrate Zoology. Poking around in the unused parts of the storerooms was one of the best parts of that job… this book makes me wish I’d taken more pictures! My favorite find was a drawer full of final exams from the 1970s, with the entire last page being a vertebrate-centric crossword puzzle. :)

  3. January 31, 2011 2:29 pm

    This looks fantastic. I’ve got some SJ Gould books on my shelves and was just pawing through them the other day; I picked them up years ago, when I was working in a bookstore, and was wondering if they would fit with or squash my “Read More Non-fiction” project for this year. The print in there is pretty teeny… your’s looks more enticing!

    • February 1, 2011 12:35 pm

      BiP – Gould’s books could work okay for a Read More Non-Fiction project – they’re dense, but if you’ve got one of his essay collections, you could do an essay a day or something to keep it from being too overwhelming.

  4. January 31, 2011 7:19 pm

    I didn’t even know that book existed! Must. Have. It’ s a huge loss that Stephen Jay Gould is gone.

    • February 1, 2011 12:36 pm

      Carrie – Agreed! His Natural History essays were a huge part of my formative years as an evolutionary biologist.

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