The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Nebula to Man

Possibly the maddest book in my collection, this is a Darwinesque narrative poem describing the scientific progress on earth from it's creation through to early man. It takes 450 pages of rhyme and many Edwardian illustrators to get us to "Modern times". The chapters are all accurately and sequentially titled after the various eras: Triassic, Jurassic, Cretacious etc. I would have loved this as a child, and the highly literal and representational images of prehistoric life are very simular to those in Arthur Mee's Encyclopaedias, if any of you are old enough to remember those. They were part of my child-hood.

"But life on land persues a chequered course,
As Law holds on its way, without remorse."

I couldn't put it better myself.

Published by J.M. Dent in 1905 this is (understandably) a first edition and is disarmigly didactic and cheerfully inaccurate ; the dinosaurs would not pass muster today. It reminds me of the magnificent Victorian concrete dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Gardens, with horns-on-noses where there should be none, and the bi-ped dinosaurs slithering on all fours. Science (and what publishers are looking for) has moved on, not always to mankind's benefit, alas. I wonder how the twentieth century would be mapped out in narrative verse, as an appendix to this mighty volume?

The provenence is interesting too - it's from a library of a Spiritualist Society in Essex which housed Conan-Doyle's library. When my parents ran a second-hand book shop they were invited to clear out unwanted books. I went along to help and fell in love with this Nebula. It was a strange experience: obviously we felt scrutinised, being amongst mediums in a large Agatha Christie style mansion. In fact the Society was extremely pleasant and welcoming. Nevertheless, I half expected the ghost of Margaret Rutherford (who my grandmother once met in Kew Gardens; she was utterly enchanting by all accounts) to appear and admonish us for taking the books. As ABBA's Fernando played on their radio we discovered that anything they did not agree with had been "edited" with scissors... but the Nebula was intact. Many books had book-plates declaring them the personal property of Conan-Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes fans gave my parents a very good price for them.

Nebula to Man is probably a worthless book, having no apparent Conan-Doyle link. But to a once dinosaur-mad kid it was the most fascinating and bizarre book in the entire library. I love it. It's mad, it's ridiculous, the rhymes don't even scan. But I know it will never end up on an ereader!


  1. It ceratinly looks a fantastic book to own.

    Yes I remember Arthur Mee. We had a set, or to be more accurate my parents did. We had always owned them and when I was finishing school in the early 70's their accuracy was no longer to be relied upon. They were kept under my parents bed and to find and excuse, to pull them out and flick through their pages to find the maps of the world and smell those rich pages, was something I frequently tried to do.

    I remember nothing of any real use in them at a time when the world was fast evolving both politically and technically and many of the countries, whose flags I studied, no longer existed.

    On the subject of dinosaurs there is always a point I am never happy with. They find 2 bone and come up with a construct of a whole dinosaur. In so many cases - how can they think they know so much? I believe you book, at least in some cases, could be as accurate as the modern representations. And anyway, we won't see them again so does it matter? Or with cloning will we and your book prove to be the more accurate?

  2. What a fascinating book, if only because it gives an insight into how people thought in Edwardian times.

  3. I like the plate of the rather pre-Raphaelite looking cave-Adam and cave-Eve - very beautiful hair considering the period! I have a much less special, less old book depicting prehistory, it does make for some chuckle accompanied reading!

    I am shocked they scissored the books!

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  5. Hello Mole,

    You are quite right about dinosaurs: Modern thought is that they had feathers but I prefer them in their Edwardian skins. I loved all the historical pictures and sections on great art (usually in sepia) or plates of butterflies. The outdatedness made them even more special somehow, and I still have them, dusty and old as they are!

  6. The pre-Raphaelite Adam & Eve are great aren't they? Except being "Scientific" they are no such thing of course. The monkeys behind make their imagined evolution very clear...

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