Back in 2009 University of California Press (in the USA) and A & C Black (in the UK) published my The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (GDD from hereon), a lavishly illustrated volume that takes the reader through the history of dinosaur science [US edition shown here; UK edition shown below]. If you’re really interested in dinosaurs, you may have seen the book already. For those of you who haven’t, it’s arranged historically, with successive chapters covering ‘key’ discoveries of the 19th century (‘Pioneering Dinosaur Discoveries’), early 20th century (‘The Great Dinosaur Rush’), 1960-1989 (‘The Dinosaur Renaissance’), the 1990s (‘Feathers and Fur: a New Diversity’) and the 21st century (‘21st-century Dinosaurs’).
It may or may not surprise you to hear that, as an author, it’s often quite difficult to learn what people think of any book you write, or of how well it fares in terms of sales and so on. You rely predominantly on feedback from the publishers, from comments made by colleagues, and also by averaging out the general impression you get from published and online reviews. Note that relying on reviews is sometimes unwise if the number of reviews is low, since one or two negative reviews on (say) Amazon can create the impression that the majority of readers hate your work and want you dead.
What do I think that other people think of my book? I have yet to see any really lengthy reviews that pore over the book’s contents in tedious detail, but then relatively few books get treated to this sort of analysis. Colleagues mostly tell me that they like the book: several individuals have thanked me for crediting their role in dinosaur history or including them in the acknowledgments, and others have said that the book’s general form and scope makes for an interesting and educational read. What about published reviews? By now I’ve seen a few, and here I’d like to mention or respond to some of them. I’ve included links to these reviews, but have also found it useful to cite choice quotes that make me particularly happy. The reviews are not listed in any particular order.
Thomas Holtz – well known for his work on theropods and his excellent 2007 book Dinosaurs (easily the best popular-level dinosaur encyclopedia: reviewed here on Tet Zoo ver 2) – referred to GDD as “the best new coffee-table book” in a rundown of dinosaur volumes hosted at MSNBC’s CosmicLog. Tom is King of the Dino Geeks (honestly; not my term), so his opinion counts for a lot.
Brian Switek – who I’m sure you all know as blog-author of both Laelaps and Dinosaur Tracking – wrote about GDD here. He liked the juxtaposition and mingling of historical narrative with discussion of scientific interpretations, and (choice quote) noted how the book is “packed with scientific and historical information that will no doubt please a wide variety of readers”. The fact that I included information on dinosaur discoveries that were brand-new at the time of writing was also noted as a plus point, but the torrent of even newer finds that have come in since the book was published inspired Brian to note “I have little doubt that he could already start working on an addendum to include all the new finds that have been announced since his book went to press”. He’s right. Incidentally, I caught up with Brian in person (for the first time ever) at SVP this month - we didn’t get on at all. Ha ha, I kid.
Over at Palaeoblog, Michael Ryan listed GDD as “recommended” and wrote how he was “prepared to write it off without even looking at it, but once I opened it I was interested enough to read it through to the end (it’s a quick read)”. He praised the design and layout, and wrote how I managed “to make the story of Mantell’s description of Iguanodon (1825) as colourful and interesting as that of Eotriceratops (2007)” [Iguanodon spread shown here]. Nice compliment. At Geomythologica, Leonardo Ambasciano very kindly provided much praise and appreciation for the book and noted the importance of its historical, sociological perspective. However, he very rightly referred to the peculiar usage of numerous dated illustrated from the 1980s. More on this below – please read on. The Dinosaur Society produced a very positive review here; they not only provided a very positive recommendation for the book, but also said nice things about how clever I am.
A review also appeared in The California Literary Review where the book was given four stars out of five. Overall it’s a great review, describing the language as “clear and accessible for the layman without being condescending”. One thing I don’t like about the review, however, is that it states how “It is surprising that there is an absence of women paleontologists in this volume”. In writing GDD I deliberately chose those key or interesting dinosaur discoveries that helped shape our view of dinosaurs and their history and evolution; I tried to make it clear that human history, culture and research focus has indeed shaped our understanding of dinosaurs and their world (as it has for the universe as a whole), but I never knowingly focused on particularly groups of people because of their sociological, cultural, genetic or sexual background. While it’s true that palaeontology has been very much male-dominated (and, while we’re at it, dominated by white, English-speaking males of European descent), I wasn’t going to cheat in order to try to balance things out. I did mention female scientists where appropriate: Halszka Osmólska’s work is discussed in the section on the ‘fighting dinosaurs’ and Deinocheirus (pp. 98-99) and Osmólska and Teresa Maryańska are both mentioned in the pages on Mongolian pachycephalosaurs (pp. 104-105). Angela Milner is rightfully discussed in connection with Baryonyx (pp. 116-117). Whatever, I kind of resent the implication that I should have tried harder to shoehorn more women into the discussion. I honestly didn’t have the balancing of sexism in my mind while writing, sorry.
Finally, I’m also pleased with the reviews currently online at Amazon. GDD gets 5 stars out of 5 at both Amazon and Amazon.co.uk and all the reviews there are positive and friendly. I’m sure there are more reviews out there – I haven’t seen any published in the pages of technical journals or science magazines, so let me know if you’re aware of any.
Had things been different
As I said the last time I discussed GDD, one of my great regrets is that – for the usual reasons of space and time (always a problem when you write a book) – the book excludes substantive mention of several key historical figures, and of their discoveries. In some cases this was because I really didn’t have the space, but in others it was because changes made to the book’s list of contents meant that we had to scrap various planned sections. A section on Richard Markgraf and Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach and the discovery of Spinosaurus and the other Cretaceous dinosaurs of El-Bahariya in Egypt [see the draft spread below] got lost for that reason (it only survives as a paragraph on p. 55), and another section on Louis Dollo and the famous Iguanodon specimens from Bernissart met a similar fate. Scipionyx lost out for reasons of space and I remain disappointed that we were never able to obtain any images of Cutler’s brilliant Euoplocephalus (= Scolosaurus) specimen.
What would be different about the book had I written it over the previous few months, as opposed to more than three years ago? The section on new North American ceratopsians (pp. 180-181) – which ends by listing Eotriceratops, Albertaceratops, Centrosaurus brinkmani and Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai as surprising 21st century discoveries – would include even more hyperbole, since a great many new North American ceratopsian taxa have been named since GDD was written (more on this when I get round to reviewing Ryan et al.’s New Perspective on Horned Dinosaurs).
The section on Dracorex and other pachycephalosaurs (pp. 176-177) does make a few nods to the idea that radical ontogenetic changes might explain some of the morphological diversity seen in the group (Margottini 2011), but an earlier section on Homalocephale and other Asian pachycephalosaurs (pp. 104-105) doesn’t mention the controversial proposal that flat-headed taxa represent juveniles of dome-skulled taxa (Sullivan 2003, Bakker et al. 2006, Longrich et al. 2010; but see Evans et al. 2011). The text on Iguanodon would at least mention the naming of Barilium, Mantellisaurus and so on (Paul 2008, Norman 2010) and the concepts of Megaraptora, Neovenatoridae and Carcharodontosauria (Benson et al. 2010) would be alluded to in the Neovenator section. European leptoceratopsids and Asian ceratopsids would be discussed, and animals like Abydosaurus, Europasaurus, Eodromeus, Concavenator, Raptorex (whatever it is), Teratophoneus, Falcarius, Balaur, Xiaotingia and Miragaia, and the work on feather pigments, would all get a mention.
Finally, while I’m mostly very happy with the artwork (we got to include some fantastic pieces by Davide Bonadonna*, Julius Csotonyi, Todd Marshall and Luis Rey), I was never too keen on the fact that – for budgetary reasons – we had to recycle quite a few illustrations from the 1980s. Those who know their palaeoart will recognise the pieces I’m referring to as coming from the 1988 Macmillan Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals (Cox et al. 1988) – several artists contributed to this volume, but all the dinosaurs were done by Steve Kirk (the same illustrations have been reproduced in a few other volumes, most notably in Douglas Palmer’s 2006 The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Prehistoric World). Kirk’s illustrations aren’t too bad, but they do look dated and rather lacklustre. In a few cases we were able to tweak them digitally and move the positions of the ears (sigh), add feathers to the Velociraptor and even turn Chasmosaurus into Agujaceratops [see adjacent images], but there are still too many claws and hooves on the grey grey sauropods, bunny hands across a variety of theropods and various other criminal offences. The scaly-skinned therizinosaur and Pelecanimimus aren’t by Kirk, but we couldn’t get better images in time. Hey, I tried, I really did.
* Not ‘David’ Bonadonna as it says in the book.
It doesn’t feel like it’s been more than two years since GDD was published – I still tend of think of it as a ‘new’ book, even though it clearly isn’t. Thanks to everyone who bought it or said nice things about it, and I honestly hope that it has proved useful, interesting and fun to read and look at. If you know of any additional reviews of the book, please do let me know.
Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. University of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles), pp. 192. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-520-25975-1.
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Bakker, R. T., Sullivan, R. M., Porter, V., Larson, P. & Saulsbury, S. J. 2006. Dracorex hogwartsia, n. gen, n. sp., a spiked, flat-headed pachycephalosaurid dinosaur from the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota. In Lucas, S. G. & Sullivan, R. M. (eds) Late Cretaceous Vertebrates from the Western Interior. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 35, 331-345.
Benson, R., Carrano, M., & Brusatte, S. (2009). A new clade of archaic large-bodied predatory dinosaurs (Theropoda: Allosauroidea) that survived to the latest Mesozoic Naturwissenschaften, 97 (1), 71-78 DOI: 10.1007/s00114-009-0614-x
Cox, B., Savage, R. J. G., Gardiner, B. & Dixon, D. 1988. Macmillan Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals. Macmillan (London).
Evans, D. C., Brown, C. B., Ryan, M. J. & Tsogtbaatar, K. 2011. Cranial ornamentation and ontogenetic status of Homalocephale calathocercos (Ornithischia: Pachycephalosauria) from the Nemegt Formation, Mongolia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 31, 84-92
Longrich, N., Sankey, J. & Tanke, D. 2010. Texacephale langstoni, a new genus of pachycephalosaurid (Dinosauria: Ornithischia) from the upper Campanian Aguja Formation, southern Texas, USA. Cretaceous Research 31, 274-284.
Margottini, L. 2011. Is it time to declutter the dinosaur roster? Science 332, 782.
Norman, D. B. 2010. A taxonomy of iguanodontian (Dinosauria: Ornithopoda) from the lower Wealden Group (Cretaceous: Valanginian) of southern England. Zootaxa 2489, 47-66.
Paul, G. S. 2008. A revised taxonomy of the iguanodont dinosaur genera and species. Cretaceous Research 29, 192-216.
Sullivan, R. M. 2003. Revision of the dinosaur Stegoceras Lambe (Ornithischia, Pachycephalosauridae). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23, 181-207.