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By Arthur, Chris | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

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Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review


OFTEN, the books that really influence us are neither the bearers of profound ideas nor works of any great literary accomplishment. They are, rather, those accidental volumes that just happened to be there, accompanying our growing up, or that we came across by chance at moments in our lives that made us particularly susceptible to them. Such susceptibility, unsurprisingly, is most pronounced in childhood. Though I'd find a place in any auto-bibliography for a selection of expected names, if I was honest about which books shaped me I'd also have to include some far less well known candidates. These, assessed on any objective scale of merit, would have no claim to canonicity. Despite this, they are for me as important as any approved syllabus of classics.

It would raise few eyebrows to include works by Plato, Thucydides, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Orwell, Joyce, on the list of books that left their mark. Such names successfully court the approbation of general cultural approval. But alongside these thoroughbred authors, capable of conferring an instant aura of respectability on the bloodline of my reading, there is a mongrel crowd of others, unsanctioned, illegitimate, whose rogue presence compromises any claim to intellectual purity or literary good breeding. Prominent among these outlaw bibliogenes--the sinistral current of the accidental, the individual, meandering alongside orthodoxy's channelled dextral flow--would be Hans Hvass's Mammals of the World. It's not the kind of book that can claim the licence of widespread recognition. It's neither original nor profound. Stylistically, it's quite ordinary. But, for all its modest status, it left a deep impression on me.

My memory of its provenance is hazy. I think the book was a Christmas or birthday present from my parents--a response to, and further stimulus of, my interest in animals and the natural world. The original was published in Danish in 1956 as Alverdens Pattedyr. My English translation (by Gwynne Vevers) is dated 1961, though whether it was given to me that year, or sometime later, is uncertain. In 1961, I was six. Certainly the handwritten name and address on the front endpaper corresponds in style to someone of around that age--the laborious shaping of each individual letter fracturing the words with its staccato awkwardness. The effort of shaping my name and address shows in the pressure exerted to do it--more akin to that needed for engraving than for writing, leaving the paper permanently indented by the gouged trough of the lead's clumsy ploughing progress. This juvenile mark of ownership contains no trace of the easy flow one associates with the fluent penmanship of adulthood.

Mammals of the World is profusely illustrated. Wilhelm Eigener's colour pictures were appealing and introduced me to a whole range of species I'd not come across before--serval, ocelot, anoa, orongo, tarsier--but the book's impact wasn't at a pictorial level, nor was what I took away from it primarily zoological. What fascinated me about it was the way it constituted a list. In fact Hans Hvass's book is, essentially, a linked series of lists with illustrations of the items they enumerate. Instead of chapters, it's structured according to the major families within the mammal group. Pages are divided into sections dealing with primates, ungulates, whales, rodents, carnivores, marsupials and so on. Then, within each of these divisions, alongside Eigener's illustrations, the species that belong to them arc listed, with brief notes, detailing habitat, distribution, behaviour and so on.

I was spellbound by this framework of types, its systematic inclusiveness, the way it offered a place for each mammal of the world. It opened up entrancing possibilities of mapping life's rich abundance--almost catching it--on the page. The order that it offered had about it a kind of austere elegance that I considered beautiful, even exciting--it seemed like a skilfully worked magical lasso, capable of catching all manner of creatures in its effortlessly thrown loops of graceful classification. …

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