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Dinomania: Why We Love, Fear and Are Utterly Enchanted by Dinosaurs

Sax DinomaniaThis book is, essentially, a human social history of dinosaurs from the turn of the eighteenth century to date—that is, since Mary Anning was extracting fossils, including dinosaur bones, from Dorset. The text contains much about dinosaur-related issues, along with numerous flash-backs linking them variously with dragons and myth/legend, and with what we presume was the real world some tens of millions of years ago. The book starts with dragon bones and moves on, via Crystal Palace and Jurassic Park, and totems of modernity, to our seemingly dinocentric world.

The pictures in the book are excellent. The first is a superb dragon by Matthaus Merian (1748), others include an astonishing Neolithic petroglyph—how could people then have known what a sauropod dinosaur might have looked like?—and works by Hieronymous Bosch and Henry de la Beche. At the other end of (human) time are mid-twentieth century murals, posters for films and exhibitions, and examples of twenty-first century palaeoart by Jan Sovak, Carl Buell, for example.

Apart from the pictures, sensu stricto, the book contains numerous word pictures drawn from different cultural sources. All are interesting because they are so various, and some are as good as a picture (but use very much less than a thousand words). The author also discusses several relevant geological issues—the cause(s) of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, for instance—but not in huge detail. Such discussion is sufficient, however, to show that Sax has a good understanding of many of the subject’s facets.

The book’s principal tenet is that “we cannot help but think of dinosaurs as, in some sense, contemporaneous”. Perhaps that is partly because, as is noted, dinosaurs were discovered at about the time that widespread belief in dragons, devils and angels was ending. Perhaps the human mind needs to believe in the existence of powerful, potentially untameable, species, and dinosaurs, which are terrifying but live entirely in another dimension, fill the gap nicely.

Having thought on the matter extensively since reading the book, I don’t know whether Sax has answered the questions implied in the title. Whether he has or not, doesn’t matter at all. The book is fascinating and well worth owning. The text is interesting and informative, and the pictures (all 128) add huge amounts to what is said. The book is not intended to be about dinosaurs, per se. Rather, it is about human interactions with human perceptions of dinosaurs.

Reviewed by Jeremy Joseph

DINOMANIA: WHY WE LOVE, FEAR AND ARE UTTERLY ENCHANTED BY DINOSAURS, by Boria Sax, 2018. Published by: Reaktion Books, London, UK. (hbk.) 264 pp. ISBN: 978-1-78914-004-0 List Price: £20.00 W: