Book Review: Skulls

Skulls:  An Exploration Of Alan Dudley’s Curious Collection, by Simon Winchester, photography by Nick Mann

This book’s title is right about one thing, and that is that Alan Dudley’s collection of skulls is definitely curious.  Whether or not that is a good sort of curiosity or not is up for debate, but it is a curious collection without dispute.  The origins of this book are somewhat odd.  Alan Dudley himself happens to be an English collector of skulls who has perhaps the largest private collection in the world, of which this book represents only about a seventh or so (some 300 of the more than 2,000 skulls in the collection).  Dudley ran afoul of various English laws involving the importation of skulls of various protected animals and appears to have sought in this book some means of recovering his reputation and increasing his popularity through sharing at least some of what he has collected with a friendly audience.  And if you like the macabre, as I do, there is a great deal to enjoy here.  He certainly has chosen wisely in having his collection and its context narrated by Simon Winchester, although it must be freely admitted that the real stars of the show are the creepy skulls themselves.

This book of about 250 pages of lushly photographed skulls (mostly from Dudley’s collection, with some supplements) begins with an introduction and some notes on the collector as well as the collection by Simon Winchester.  After this there are a few pages of amphibian skulls, some frogs and newts, followed by a couple of essays.  Then there are about 50 pages of pictures of the skulls of birds, a wide variety including seabirds, birds of prey, game birds, kingfighers and hornbills, toucans and woodpeckers, nightjars and swifts, flightless large birds, owls, parrots, passerines, penguins, pigeons, wading birds, and waterbirds, including essays on the Dodo as well as pseudocience.  There is a lengthy chapter containing a variety of fish skulls (including eels), with essays about the iconography of skulls including the importance of skulls in Mexican culture.  There is a large essay of nearly 100 pages about mammal skulls, including a wide variety of mammals, even egg laying mammals (sadly, no echidnas), as well as a lot of primates and rodents and even some oddball animals like the rock hyrax and tapir and tenrec.  The last chapter contains skulls of various reptiles, including alligators and crocodiles, lizards and snacks, and various turtles and tortoises.

Ultimately, it is not clear whether or not this book succeeds at its purpose of making Alan Dudley and his immensely creepy collection of skulls, some of them in very excellent condition, more appealing to the wider public.  This is not necessarily the fault of either Winchester or photographer Mann, as the photography in this book is amazing in its detail and sensitivity and Winchester turns in his customary work of putting the creepy skulls in a larger context including discussions of anatomy as well as the cultural and symbolic importance of skulls within history.  Overall, this book appears mainly a chance for Dudley to share some of his more notable finds, for Winchester to wax eloquent on them, and for Mann to take some amazing photographs of them.  And if you happen to like skulls, there is a great deal to appreciate even if one does find them occasionally a bit off-putting.  For the most part, the book does seek to present Dudley as an ethical skull collector, and it is likely that he will be viewed as merely eccentric and not as a risk to threatened and endangered animals after this particular book, which is likely for the best.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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