One notable feature of Life is that it actually tries to cover the whole history of life on Earth. Most popular books here are heavily weighted to more recent events, most obviously dinosaurs, mammals, and human origins. Jenkins, in contrast, has excellent coverage of the earlier history: there's even a double-page spread on "The Boring Billion" from 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago, and the midpoint of the book comes around the Devonian-Carboniferous transition and the origin of amniotes. There's just one spread at the end on modern eutherian mammals including H. sapiens.
As is common in popular accounts, however, the focus is on the larger, more prominent animals. There's relatively little on insects and plants: bees and flowering plants get a mention and a full page illustration, but there's no discussion of insect holometabolism (complete metamorphosis) or grasses. Jenkins focuses on the relationships and broad histories of the major groups: he does a good job of explaining, for example, the relationship between archosaurs, sauropsids and synapsids. Strangely there's no family tree, which would have been useful and could have taken advantage of the large format.
Grahame Baker-Smith's illustrations make good use of the large format. Many are black and white line-drawings, others use a limited colour palette to good effect. There are some really dramatic, eye-catching full-spread illustrations, while others present a variety of organisms. There is even one foldout four page spread, which fits in a timeline but is, at 1.2m metres wide, just too unwieldy.
Plants takes a thematic approach and has thirty largely independent double-page spreads, with text on the left facing illustrations and captions on the right. Most address topics in anatomy and ecology — "The Most Important Reaction", "The Secret Life of Flowers", "Spores", "Tall, Taller, Tallest Trees", "Plant Defences" — with others on plant diversity — "Plants in Deserts", "Rainforests", "Plant Hotspots" — and human concerns — "Collecting Plants", "Plants in Peril".
Most of the text is of a high standard, so a few errors and infelicities are glaring. A spread "Ten Plants that Feed the World" has half the production figures mysteriously reduced from millions to thousands of tonnes. And a sentence such as this seems way too long: "Sometimes, though, plants turn out to have quite unexpected properties: in the 1960s it was discovered that extracts from the bark of the yew, a tree whose association with sacred sites in Europe pre-dates the Christian era, contains a powerful anti-cancer agent which has proved invaluable in treating a wide range of different forms of the disease."
James Brown's illustrations for A World of Plants have a limited colour palette, with each spread using one colour in two intensities along with black, white and grey. This mostly works surprisingly well, though we occasionally found ourselves searching for pictures online to work out what colours some plants were. There is one full-page picture of a permaculture allotment that stands by itself, but otherwise the illustrations tend less to the dramatic and more to the infographical. In some cases the space is used for larger diagrams — the life cycle of a fern, a soil texture classification chart, a plant family tree — and in others for an array of smaller drawings illustrating aspects of functional, ecological, or taxonomic diversity — four different ways plants have of climbing, six different "Mediterranean" shrublands, sixteen varieties of tulip.
Life: The First Four Billion Years and A World of Plants are both excellent books, visually striking and highly informative. They also seem relatively cheap, given their size and quality: school libraries should have copies and they would make lovely presents.
- External links:
Life: The First Four Billion Years
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A World of Plants
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