I first became aware of Stephen Asma‘s book on the fine Washington Post Book World podcast (which sadly is no more). The Post also chose the book as one of its top non-fiction titles of the year for 2009, calling it “a safari through the many manifestations of our idea of the monstrous”. Their reviewer went on: “I have seldom read a book that so satisfyingly achieves such an ambitious goal.”
And indeed the book is much more than a mere freakish parade of monsters (though that is a part of its pleasure) – it is rather an investigation of the meaning of monsters. Why do all societies have their monsters? What do they help us cope with? How has the significance of monsters changed as societies have gone from polytheism to monotheism and on through the Enlightenment? And which of our current fears will our future monsters embody?
Asma is clearly something of a polymath – not only did he produce many of the illustrations in the book himself, he also combines his academic career at Columbia College in Chicago, where he specializes in the philosophy and history of science, with playing music professionally (you can sample it here). And he has made his own entertainingly creepy trailer for On Monsters, which you can see here.
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