Today on Project Gutenberg #9

Today on Project Gutenberg we have…

More Science from an Easy Chair by Sir E. Ray Lankester

From the title of this book, I expected something along the line of simple experiments for schoolchildren in third grade or lower. But what we have here is something much more unusual and substantial, a real melting pot of a book. It’s a travelogue, a history text, an art gallery, a bestiary and many other things. Perhaps it’s best to simply call it a science anthology.

The author, E. Ray Lankester, was a British zoologist and the third director of the Natural History Museum in London. He explains in the preface that this book is made up of articles he had previously published in the Daily Telegraph. While the original publication was sometime between 1912 and 1914, the version I have here is a cut-down edition from 1920. That said, this is still a pretty long book with a wide variety of subjects. Most have to do with animals, as you would expect from a zoologist. There are chapters like “The Strange Story of Animal Life in New Zealand,” “Fatherless Frogs” and “A Strange Extinct Beast.” But you’ve also got topics like “Smells and Perfumes,” “New Year’s Day and the Calendar” and “Prehistoric Petticoats,” which is about surviving examples of cave art throughout Europe. Among the more unusual chapters is “The Jewel in the Toad’s Head,” in which Lankester picks up on a reference made by Shakespeare to a toad with a jewel in its head and tries to figure out what the heck he was talking about. This launches a whole discussion about the true nature of “toad-stones” and the history of their supposed magical properties. Turns out they were actually fish teeth!

Lankester’s way of writing is a bit difficult to follow at times, but you’ll get a lot out of it if you’re paying attention. He’s quick to get to his point, and he’s got a good sense of snark as well. Take this excerpt from his chapter on museums:

Thousands, even millions of pounds, have been expended on the building of museums, on the purchase of specimens, on cases and cataloguing, and on the salaries of directors, and keepers, and assistants, yet the museums remain, so far as any declaration of purpose and principle is concerned, mere “repositories,” as in the words of the old Act of Parliament constituting the British Museum—for the use and enjoyment of the public, it is true, but without any expression of a conception of how that use and enjoyment is to be limited so as to make them something better than a dime-show, or how any serious purpose is to be achieved by their costly housing and up-keep. No doubt various directors and keepers have from time to time shown intelligence and laboured to make museums not only places of enjoyment and “edification,” but also the means of increasing knowledge and rendering service to the State. But the scope of our public museums, and the principles and methods by which it may be realised, have never been agreed upon, and consequently are not definitely recognised by the State nor by the curiously ill-chosen committees of managers, or trustees, to whose tender mercies the ultimate control of these institutions is confided—apparently by haphazard or misapprehension.
The notion of a town corporation, or of the central government at this or that date, has been that museums are best controlled and public money expended in connection with them by persons who know nothing about the real importance of the collections, and receive no guidance from any scheme or statutable declaration of specific purpose drawn up by a competent authority.

Page 216

Speaking from experience, are we, Sir Lankester?

While this isn’t the type of book I would read cover to cover, it’s fun to peruse and read individual chapters. You’re likely to find something in here that piques your interest, whether that’s zoology or history or just the early twentieth century takes on these topics. It should be called A Bit of Everything from an Easy Chair, but that doesn’t ring quite as well, does it?

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg. See you next time!

— Dana

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