Living Jewels: The Natural Design of Beetles
Poul Beckmann and Ruth Kaspin
(Prestel Books)

The beauty of this book is in the illustrations: large-scale photographs of beetles are set against a stark, white background. The beetles are sculptural and graphic, with polka dots and stripes along their jeweled backs. On some specimens, antenna curve over most of the page. Others have stylized snouts, hooked claws, heads like dinosaurs. The strength of the book could be compounded immensely if only the introduction had been written by a writer with a sense of audience, purpose, poetry, or even just sheer awe. Unfortunately, the only text in the book is a tedious mix. Information is delivered in generalities, stating the obvious: "Beetles inhabit every continent on earth except Antarctica..." or, "Beetles are invertebrates, which means that they have no internal skeletons." This is the stuff of kindergarten.

The author doesn't distinguish between the few compelling details (three exactly) and the body of redundant, generalized research. Wedged between a reminder to readers that the Egyptians were fond of scarabs and a passage reiterating material about beetle collecting, there's an amazing line: "Victorian ladies took up the fashion of wearing live jewel beetles tethered by tiny golden chains."

Another interesting--though short--paragraph mentions "Medieval animal trials." Apparently, at one time it was not uncommon to take insects to court. The book cites a trial of 1320 as the earliest recorded trial against "cockchafer larvae." "...two priests in ceremonial garb visited the land and proclaimed a summons to all larval cockchafers to appear before the Bishop, with failure to appear punishable by excommunication. Written notice of the summons was posted, which included advice to the larvae of their right to court-appointed counsel."

Needless to say, the cockchafer's lost, though escaped excommunication. They were given a plot of land outside town; those who refused to relocate were exterminated as outlaws. In 1478, another batch of larvae was excommunicated. Perhaps this is preferable to extermination in the insect order of things?