Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Smithsonian Natural History

A VL Classic originally posted Summer 2012


When I was in elementary school, I used to lug home from the school library a book on natural history. The title and author are long forgotten, but I do know I never read the whole book. I couldn’t get past the prehistoric animal sections, captivated by dinosaurs and giant mammals such as saber-toothed cats and mastodons. The due date would arrive and I would reluctantly take the book back, determined to take it out again and give it another try. Had I spent less time studying the illustrations, I might have finished the book.
Fast forward some decades to me browsing at my local library and spotting an oversized book marked Natural History. Oversized is an understatement, this jumbo tome must weigh at least 5 pounds. But it’s worth all the effort it takes to lift it, as it’s dazzling. The subtitle is “The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth” and it’s true.
The DK trademark is photos on a white background and this book is filled with hundreds of them. Everything except the whales, porpoises and dolphins, which are paintings. I couldn’t help but wonder at how long it took to edit the photos, to cut out the backgrounds leaving the outlines of each item. Each one has a few lines of fun facts next to it, with size and region always included. Every so often, one species is selected for a closer look, with a two page spread devoted to it with multiple views, close-ups and further information on it. They’re most often the more common species like the white rhino or the red lionfish.
The first part of the book is a short overview of what the term natural history means and includes such topics such as habitats, evolution and classification. Then the subjects are arranged in sections, nicely marked with color tabs on the pages. They begin with Rocks and Minerals, which happily includes fossils (dinosaurs, yay!) and continues through everything from Microscopic Life with their flourescent colors to Plants and Invertabraes, ending with the animal kingdom.
I once spent a long afternoon paging through the entire book, feeling as thrilled as my grade school self would have. But there’s an extensive index for locating a specific species, as well as an illustrative table of contents with guides to types and color tabs. It’s as fun to use for research as it is to browse.
One strange note, though the book can be found at most major book stores, it’s vastly less expensive when ordered online. I was puzzled by this and felt bad for my postal carrier, but the difference in price was considerable.
Whether you find space on your bookshelf for it, or borrow from a library, this book is a treat for anyone who is interested in our natural world and the amazing things to be found in it.

DK Publishing 2010 648 pp. ISBN 978-07566-6752-8

Jackie has always loved nature and has tried to show it in her wildlife paintings, which can be seen here .

3 comments on “Smithsonian Natural History

  1. Sue Williams
    January 13, 2014

    Over the years I have bought several DK books for my grandchildren. This one I would like to get for me. They can have it if I ever get done with it. Jackie, you have piqued my interest, especially since there are minerals in there too! Thanks for the great review and hopefully you can tell me where you got it online.

  2. Jackie
    January 13, 2014

    LOL You’d like it, I’m sure, it’s fascinating. I believe I got it through the B&N website. I was going to buy it at my local store, but it was about $12 cheaper online, so I couldn’t pass that up. That was a couple years ago, so I’m not sure what it cost now.

  3. roberta4949
    February 2, 2014

    looks interesting wonder if our library has it too.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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