Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings (1969) introduces readers to the origins and characteristics of creatures like the Chimera, the Chinese Dragon, the Jinn, and the Western Dragon. Although I am hardly a scholar when it comes to monsters and imaginary beings, I was still impressed by how many of 155 creatures included here were entirely new to me.
This book might seem limited to some twenty-first century readers, so let’s acknowledge these concerns (if only to get them out of the way). First of all, there is no entry on the demogorgan because this book was published decades ago. Second, many of the creatures listed here have longer entries on Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s article about the squonk, for example, not only references Borges’s book but also information from other sources. Wikipedia therefore seems to provide a more comprehensive overview of the squonk, if that matters. Next, I did not find entries on some creatures, such as the Hilde Folk, that I was hoping to find. Finally, Borges’s entries are less consistently structured than those in, say, Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds or even Day’s A Tolkien Bestiary.
I nevertheless enjoyed The Book of Imaginary Beings. For one thing, if it weren’t for this book, I’d probably not ever know to look up a squonk as it’s apparently known only to people that live in Pennsylvania. (Even though I lived next door in New Jersey for five years, I’d never heard of this creature.) Part of the book’s value is that someone took the time to look for imaginary creatures that might be categorized together in one publication.
And readers who hold the book up to a very high standard of scrutiny might actually be missing out on the fun of reading it. As Borges notes in the preface to the 1969 edition, “as we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” The entries often provide interesting analyses that I enjoyed mulling over and then researching in more detail online. Though I suppose all readers will find their own special entries, I was particularly intrigued by the entries on the Double and the Eater of the Dead.
There are many editions of The Book of Imaginary Beings, which makes this book a bit difficult to recommend without reservation. The first edition was published in 1957. I read the edition that was translated into English by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in 1969. In researching this book to produce this review, I learned that there is an illustrated version as well, and it almost certainly must be better since illustrations of fantastic beings are wonderful.
In short, The Book of Imaginary Beings is a diverting collection of rabbit holes to keep on your favorite shelf. Given that I am writing this in December, I’ll note that it’s almost certainly a perfect gift for that SFF reader who appears to have everything.