Sea-Serpents, Vampires, Pirates & More: The Public Domain Review’s Second Book of Essays

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The image above is a ver­sion of Sebas­t­ian Münster’s 16th-cen­tu­ry chart of sea mon­sters, star­ring all kinds of fan­tas­ti­cal denizens of the deep: from ship-eat­ing ser­pents and giant lob­sters to some kind of seal-octo­pus hybrid. Fea­tured in the open­ing essay on the his­to­ry of sea ser­pents, the image is one of nine­ty-nine illus­tra­tions to adorn the pages of The Pub­lic Domain Review’s won­der­ful new book of select­ed essays.

That the col­lec­tion should begin with this most elu­sive of snakes is per­haps par­tic­u­lar­ly appro­pri­ate. Rep­re­sent­ing as it does the very idea of ter­ra incog­ni­ta, the sea ser­pent is a fig­ure which echoes on in so many of the essays which fol­low, if we see these “lands unknown” to be not mere­ly geo­graph­i­cal but to refer also to the less­er known realms of knowl­edge. All man­ner of oft-over­looked his­to­ries are explored in the book. We learn of the strange skele­tal tableaux of Fred­erik Ruysch, pay a vis­it to Humphry Davy high on laugh­ing gas, and peruse the pages of the first ever pic­ture book for chil­dren (which includes a won­der­ful table of Latin ani­mal sounds). There’s also fire­works in art, pet­ty pirates on tri­al, brain­wash­ing machines, truth-reveal­ing dis­eases, synes­thet­ic auras, Byron­ic vam­pires, and Charles Darwin’s pho­to­graph col­lec­tion of asy­lum patients. Togeth­er the fif­teen essays chart a won­der­ful­ly curi­ous course through the last five hun­dred years of his­to­ry, tak­ing us on a jour­ney through some of the dark­er, stranger, and alto­geth­er more intrigu­ing cor­ners of the past.


You can find out more about the book through The Pub­lic Domain Review’s web­site. If you want it before Christ­mas (and we think it’d make an excel­lent present for that his­to­ry-lov­ing rel­a­tive!), then make sure to order by mid­night on Wednes­day 18th Novem­ber. Orders before this date will also ben­e­fit from a spe­cial reduced price.

–Adam Green is the co-founder and edi­tor of The Pub­lic Domain Review.

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