Friday, 28 September 2007

Exclusive Review - The Book of Animal Ignorance

The Book of Animal Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson is available to pre-order from

The Book of Animal Ignorance is quite different from its predecessor, the Book of General Ignorance. The few people that disliked the first QI book complained that its question and answer style made them feel stupid (although the fact that so many people bought it seems to suggest that people quite enjoyed this). You won’t get that feeling when reading the latest edition from the QI team.

The book has lost the question and answer style of the book of general ignorance. Instead it has been organised into two-page sections, each concerning one of 100 animals, organised alphabetically. Hence the focus has drifted away from the ignorance and over to the animal. However, that does not mean that the book is any less interesting.

For someone who religiously watches the TV show which the book accompanies, this book is far more rewarding. The first book lifted much of its material from the general ignorance round in the show. That which hadn’t been seen by viewers of the show, probably hadn’t made the cut. For this book it is clear that a considerable amount of extra research has been done.

Since much of the research has been done exclusively for the book, you can begin to perceive some of the themes that preoccupied the authors and their elves. The etymology of animal names is a clear example. Understanding how an animal was named gives a fascinating insight into what we believed we knew about the animal in the past and how our relationship with it has changed. The mouse is an excellent example:

“The very name ‘mouse’ ultimately derives from the Sanskrit root mush, which means mouse and also to steal. Hence wherever we went thereafter – on foot, in carts, or by ship – the little thief kept us company.”

There’s also a very strong focus on evolution and how natural selection produced some of the stranger animals in the book. This makes for some interesting discussion, especially for those animals that have existed in isolation for so long.

If the book makes a reference to barbs, spines, nails or unfolding like a Swiss army knife then something about male genitalia is probably about to follow. The topic of animal reproduction and their reproductive organs is something this book doesn’t shy away from. It certainly makes for intriguing discussion. Both men and women will find that this book will create feelings of varying degrees of supremacy and inadequacy. However, one must disagree with the claim that “if the Nine-banded armadillo were human its penis would be 4 feet long”. If it were human then it would have a human sized penis.

Accompanying the section on each animal is at least one picture drawn by Ted Dewan. Reading a book as interesting as this, it would be easy to rush onto read about the next animal without glancing at these excellent illustrations. Don’t! These pictures don’t just illustrate what is described in the text but also include some of the most interesting pieces of information in the book. They range from mechanical drawings (Ted Dewan trained as an engineer) to illustrate an owl’s ability to move its head around 360 degrees, to the life-like drawing of a catfish. Some will set you laughing out loud like the sketch of a brown bear wandering around a supermarket. Also, don’t miss the extra facts and quotes in the grey boxes. The best one accompanies the section about humans.

“Human beings, who are unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so” Douglas Adams.

The book includes at its start a foreword by Stephen Fry, a ‘forepaw’ by Alan Davies (which is far bigger than his contribution to the first book) and an introduction by the authors John Lloyd and John Mitchinson. All three are well worth reading and avoid skipping straight into the main text. As they explain, QI is as much a philosophy as a TV show and animals are the bread and butter of interestingness. A quote from Henry Beston in the book:

“In a world older and more complex than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the sense we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

The amazing illustrations, the tireless research by the elves and the philosophy of QI have combined to create an excellent book. You can dip into it and be confident that you will always be rewarded with something you didn’t know. I sincerely suggest that you take up the author’s invitation to “come down to the waterhole of ignorance and wallow with us for a while”.


Anonymous said...

That's a very nicely written review - thanks Chris!


MinervaMoon said...

"However, one must disagree with the claim that 'if the Nine-banded armadillo were human its penis would be 4 feet long'. If it were human then it would have a human sized penis."

LOL. Well, quite.