When I was nine, a copy of Don Glut’s The New Dinosaur Dictionary turned up in my local Waldenbooks. It wasn’t my first dinosaur book, by far – I’d been a dinosaurophile since the age of three. But The New Dinosaur Dictionary was different.

Up to that point, I had subsisted on a heavy diet of kids’ dino books and the occasional article in National Geographic and Ranger Rick. The kids’ books were aimed at kids and the magazine articles were pitched at an engagingly popular level. I didn’t understand every word, but they were clearly written for curious layfolk, not specialists.

A typical spread from The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982). The armored sauropod blew my young mind.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something else entirely. It had photos of actual dinosaur bones and illustrations of skeletons with cryptic captions like, “Skeleton of Daspletosaurus torosus. (After Russell)”. Okay, clearly this Russell cove was out there drawing dinosaur skeletons and this book had reproduced some of them. But nobody I knew talked like that, and the books I had access to up to that point held no comparable language.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 271)

Then there was stuff like this: “The so-called Von Hughenden sauropod restored as a brachiosaurid by Mark Hallett”. A chain of fascinating and pleasurable ideas detonated in my brain. “The so-called” – say what now? Nobody even knew what to call this thing? Somehow I had inadvertently sailed right to the edge of human knowledge of dinosaurs, and was peering out into taxa incognita. “Restored as a brachiosaurid” – so this was just one of several possible ways that the animal might have looked. Even the scientists weren’t sure. This was a far cry from the bland assurances and blithely patronizing tones of all my previous dinosaur books.

“By Mark Hallett.” I didn’t know who this Hallett guy was, but his art was all over the book, along with William Stout and some guy named Robert T. Bakker and a host of others who were exploding my conception of what paleo art could even be. Anyway, this Mark Hallett was someone to watch, not only because he got mentioned by name a lot, but because his art had a crisp quality that teetered on some hypercanny ridge between photorealism and scribbling. His sketches looked like they might just walk off the page.

In case that line about scribbling sounds dismissive: I have always preferred sketches by my favorite artists to their finished products. The polished works are frequently inhumanly good. They seem to have descended in a state of completed perfection from some divine realm, unattainable by mere mortals. Whereas sketches give us a look under the hood, and show how a good artist can conjure light, shadow, form, weight, and texture from a few pencil strokes. Put it this way: I am anatomist by temperament first, and by training and occupation second. Of course I want to see how things are put together.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 75)

Anyway, The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something completely new in my experience. It wasn’t aimed at kids and written as if by kids, like lots of kids’ books. It wasn’t even written by adults talking down (deliberately or inadvertently) to kids, or trying to reach a wide audience that might include kids. It was written by an adult, aiming at other adults. And it was admitting in plain language that we didn’t know everything yet, that there were lots of animals trembling on the outer threshold of scientific knowledge. I didn’t understand half of it – I was down in an ontogenetic trench, looking up as these packets of information exploded like fireworks over my head.

In Seeing In the Dark, the best book about why you should go out stargazing for yourself, Timothy Ferris writes about growing up on Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1960s, and watching the first generation of artificial satellites pass overhead:

I felt like an ancient lungfish contemplating the land from the sea. We could get up there.

That’s precisely the effect that The New Dinosaur Dictionary had on me: I could get up there. Maybe not immediately. But there were steps, bodies of knowledge that could be mastered piecemeal, and most of all, mysteries to be resolved. The book itself was like a sketch, showing how from isolated and broken bones and incomplete skeletons, scientists and artists reconstructed the world of the past, one hypothesis at a time. Now I take it for granted, because I’ve been behind the curtain for a couple of decades. But to my 9-year-old self, it was revolutionary.

This has all come roaring back because of something that came in the mail this week. Or rather, something that had been waiting in the mailroom for a while, that I finally picked up this week: a package from Mark Hallett, enclosing a copy of his 2018 dinosaur calendar. And also this:

 

An original sketch, which he gave to me as a Christmas present. The published version appears on one of the final pages of our book, where we discuss the boundaries between the known – the emerging synthesis of sauropod biology that we hoped to bring to a broader audience by writing the book in the first place – and the unknown – the enduring mysteries that Mark and I think will drive research in sauropod paleobiology for the next few decades. Presented without a caption or commentary, the sketch embodies sauropods as we see them: emerging from uncertainty and ignorance one hard-won line at a time, with ever-increasing solidity.

Thank you, Mark, sincerely. That sketch, what it evokes, both for me now and for my inner 9-year-old – you couldn’t have chosen a better gift. And I couldn’t be happier. Except perhaps to someday learn that our book exploded in the mind of a curious kid the way that The New Dinosaur Dictionary did for me 34 years ago, a time that now seems as distant and romantic as the primeval forests of the Mesozoic.

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Vicki and London and I were in downtown Los Angeles for a friend’s wedding on Dec. 30, and afterward we visited The Last Bookstore. Embarrassingly, even though I’m LA-adjacent, I had not been before. I believe the mounted woolly mammoth visible in the far corner was one of the last ones to be shot in the LA Basin.

The Last Bookstore is an awesome place, with two floors of new and used books, records, comics, and related esoterica. Made me nostalgic for Logos in downtown Santa Cruz, which sadly closed shop this past summer.

The visit was a momentous occasion for me. Although my book with Mark Hallett has been out for almost a year and a half now, and many copies have passed through my hands at book signings, I’d never run into one out in the wild.

I quickly and quietly did a guerilla signing, and left the book on the shelf. And I intend to keep doing them, as often as I run into unsigned copies. As a public service message, if you ever find a copy of the book out in the world that looks like it’s been signed by me, it’s probably legit (send me a pic or post in the comments if you have doubts). Since I’m inflicting these on an unsuspecting public, if you get stuck with a signed copy but would prefer otherwise, let me know and I’ll swap a fresh book for your vandalized one.

I also did okay finding books for myself. I got two: On a Piece of Chalk, by Thomas Henry Huxley, and The Anatomy of the Salamander, by Eric T.B. Francis.

On a Piece of Chalk is a legendary bit of natural history. In 1868, T.H. Huxley gave a public lecture with that title to the working folk of Norwich, during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. A piece of chalk was both his physical tool and his subject, which he used to illustrate, literally and figuratively, the evidence for uniformitarian stratigraphy and biological evolution. Huxley’s talk has been printed twice: later in 1868 by Macmillan’s Magazine of London, and in a nice hardback in 1967 by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York. I found a copy of the latter for five bucks, which I note is the going rate for used copies on Amazon. But I can’t actually find any evidence that my copy has been used. It appears to be utterly pristine, and I suspect it may be New Old Stock.

If you don’t own a copy of this wonderful book, you should drop what you’re doing, acquire one, and read it. If you’re reading this blog, you probably know Huxley’s punchline. But the way Huxley draws the reader in, illustrates his points with clear and compelling examples, and builds his argument steadily outward, from a piece of chalk to the vertiginous spectacle of deep time, is masterful in both concept and execution.

I know less about the salamander anatomy book, but I snagged it anyway. It’s a reprint of an original 1934 text, published in 2002 by the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. Reproduction quality is excellent, especially of the numerous and minutely detailed plates. I picked up the book for two reasons: one, because I’m getting progressively more interested in the peripheral nervous systems of nonhuman tetrapods, and two, because I have a peculiar fetish for good illustrations of the recurrent largyneal nerve, especially in short-necked animals (for example). I did not come away disappointed.

The moral of the story? Stay alert for good natural history writing. I find that older natural history books turn up in used bookstores pretty regularly, and it’s possible to grow your library inexpensively if you are patient. And support your local bookstore, while it’s still there to support.

Hey sports fans, as the year winds down I bring you another podcast appearance. This time out I’m rolling with Mark Hallett, and we’re talking about sauropods through the lens of our still-plausibly-somewhat-newish book, The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants, on the I Know Dino podcast. Many thanks to Sabrina and Garret for having us on the show. While you’re on that page, check out the nice preview of Mark’s 2018 dinosaur calendar, which is available at Pomegranate and Amazon.

The photo shows the Diplodocus carnegii cast mounted in the natural history museum in Vienna, one of Andrew Carnegie’s gifts to the world. A happy seasonal metaphor, sez me. Hope your new year is equally happy!

Here’s a bunch of cool stuff that is either available now or happening soon:

Sauropod Dinosaurs book excerpt in Prehistoric Times

Been on the fence about the sauropod book Mark Hallett and I wrote? Now you can try before you buy – our chapter on titanosaurs is reprinted in the new issue of Prehistoric Times magazine. I know it’s on newsstands because I picked it up at the local Barnes & Noble yesterday. You can also buy the issue from the PT website, physically or in digital form, solo or as part of a subscription. Many thanks to PT editor and publisher Mike Fredericks for the visibility, the staff at Johns Hopkins University Press for permission, and most of all to Mark Hallett for making it happen. We hope you enjoy it.

Get more sauropods in Mark Hallett’s 2018 dinosaur calendar

Mark has a dinosaur calendar out from Pomegranate, and I’m happy to say that sauropods are featured 5 out of 12 months. The calendar has a nice mix of Hallett classics and some newer works, including the cover art from our book, as shown above. Get it direct from Pomegranate or from Amazon.

Vicki’s public talk on forensic anthropology in December

My better half, anthropologist and author Vicki Wedel, is giving a public talk about her work on the evening of Thursday, December 14, at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. Her title will be, “Bones, ballistics, and blunt force trauma.” I assume the talk will start at 6:00, but check the WSC website for details. The painted skull above is from the natural history museum in Vienna, and it doesn’t have any connection to the talk other than Vicki thought it was rad and I needed a skull to illustrate the post. For more on Vicki and her work, see these posts: cold case, book.

2017VWedelLecture

UPDATE: Final details on Vicki’s talk are out. It will start at 6:00, she’ll be signing copies of her book, Broken Bones: Anthropological Analysis of Blunt Force Trauma, and admission is $5.

My public talk on sauropods and whales in January

In January it will be my turn to give a talk at the Western Science Center. I’m on for the evening of Thursday, January 18. Title is not quite finalized but it will probably something along the lines of, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?” That’s me with the gray whale skeleton at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, back in 2006. I was helping Nick Pyenson measure whales, back when we were both grad students. Ancient blog posts about that here: gray, blue.

See me in Seattle at Norwescon over Easter weekend

If you want to see me star-struck, come to Norwescon, home of the Philip K. Dick Award, next spring, where I’ll be rubbing shoulders with some vastly more famous people. Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award winner Ken Liu will be the Writer Guest of Honor, legendary SF&F visionary Wayne Douglas Barlowe Hugo- and World Fantasy Award-winning artist Galen Dara will be the Artist Guest of Honor, Green Ronin is the Spotlight Publisher, and, er, I will be the Science Guest of Honor. Yes, I’m alert to both the honor and the incongruity of the thing. When I’m not Freaking. Out. about hanging with two of my favorite creators, I’ll probably be giving talks on dinosaurs and astronomy (my other thing) and participating on some panels and signing books. I’ll try not to disappoint.

I’ve done a few book signings now and here’s my checklist of stuff to bring. The first three items on the list are asterisked because they may be provided by the venue, but they may not. Sometimes the venue will have tables for rent but not for loan. Don’t assume, do check in advance.

  1. Table.*
  2. Chair.*
  3. Tablecloth.* Yes, really. Even if the table is really nice, it will look even better with a tablecloth. Black, so it won’t show ink spots or stains, and long enough to reach the floor so visitors don’t have to look at whatever weird thing your legs and feet look like when you’re sitting in a chair. (There’s no tablecloth in the photo above because I had loaned it to Brian Engh to cover the much uglier table he had next to mine.)
  4. Books.
  5. Book stand, to hold a display copy of the book vertically, and – assuming the book is illustrated – open to a good ‘splash’ page.
  6. Clear plastic standees for signs, book covers, notes. Having the list price and the discounted price (assuming they’re available at a discount) is good. If there are positive quotes from reviews, put ’em on a sign.
  7. Blue Sharpies for signing books. Blue because it stands out, Sharpies because they’re permanent and the ink dries wicked fast. If you have doubts about the ink bleeding through, test in advance.
  8. Post-It notes: for people to write down names so you spell them correctly in the inscriptions, for you to write notes to send with people, to put names on reserved or pre-paid books, and for the thousand or so unforeseen circumstances where having a sticky note might be useful.
  9. Scissors: for opening boxes, cutting plastic off books, cutting paper signs to size on short notice, etc.
  10. Masking tape for fixing up ad-hoc signs, repairing boxes, hanging things from the wall or table, etc.
  11. Business cards to easily hand out email address and URLs.
  12. Full-size envelope or wallet for holding bills: full-size so you don’t have to fold and unfold bills, zipper top with no flap for easy access and equally easy closure, opaque sides so people can’t see how much is in there, and ideally a vibrant color so it will be hard for you to lose and equally hard for someone to swipe without drawing attention.
  13. Folder with discount fliers (or info fliers) for people who can’t buy a book right then. Don’t underestimate how useful these can be. There are a host of reasons why a potential buyer might not want, or be able, to purchase a book right that moment. Maybe they want their hands free as they’re walking around, if it’s an event with other exhibitors. Maybe they have no cash and can’t get a signal for PayPal (in which case, you probably won’t be able to get a signal for your Square card reader). Maybe they just want time to think about it. Whatever the reason, a tactile reminder of your book is a helpful thing to be able to send away with a potential buyer.
  14. Speaking of payment, set up for yourself a PayPal.me link, like this one. It’s fast and free, and the URL will be short enough that you can write it on a Post-It. At one of my signings this spring, there was no cell or wifi access inside the building. But a customer was able to go outside, get a signal, pay me using my PayPal.me link, get a screenshot of the confirmation, come back inside and show me the confirmation, and get their book. Seriously, do this.
  15. Plastic dinosaurs to set on the table and serve as long-distance visual cues. Don’t work on dinosaurs? Find some physical object related to your book to set on the table.
  16. Hand specimens for guests to examine while their books are being signed. For me that’s a chunk of petrified wood from the Morrison Formation, and a sectioned ostrich vertebra showing the internal structure.

In the photo up top, all of the little fiddly stuff – items 7-13 – is hidden behind one of the stacks of books, or behind the open book when the stacks get depleted. You can hide all kinds of mess behind a stack of books and still have a nice presentation.

I keep all of this stuff in a cardboard box that is clearly labeled “Book Signing”. So when an event comes along, all I have to grab are the books and that box and I’m good to go.

If you have further suggestions for improvement, let me know!

Upcoming book signings

April 19, 2017

Come gawk at this weirdo in public!

I’ll be signing copies of The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants at regional events the next two weekends.

This this coming Saturday, April 22, I’ll be at the Inland Empire Science Festival, which will run from 10 AM to 4 PM at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. There will be a ton of other special exhibits and activities, too. I don’t know all of them off the top of my head, but I know that Brian Engh will have the table next to mine, so come by and get two doses of awesome paleo art.

The following Friday, April 28, I’ll be at Beer N’ Bones 2017, which runs from 7-11 PM at the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa, Arizona. In addition to signing books, I’ll also be in the “Speed Dating a Scientist” thing, where small groups of people get five minutes each at a table with a researcher, to ask whatever they want. Not just paleontologists, but scientists of all stripes. That said, I know of a couple of other local paleontologists who will also be there as guests – Andy Farke and Thierra Nalley. I was at Beer N’ Bones last year and it was a blast. As you might suspect from the name, it is 21-and-over only.

I’ll have books for sale – at a healthy discount – at both events. Hopefully I’ll see you out there.

mark-and-matt-with-the-sauropod-dinosaurs

Quick heads up: Mark Hallett and I are both at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Salt Lake City. Tomorrow afternoon (Friday, October 28) at 4:15 PM we’ll be signing copies of our book, The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants. If you’d like to get a copy of the book, or to have your already-purchased copy signed, please come to the Johns Hopkins University Press booth in the exhibitor/poster area tomorrow afternoon. We’re both generally happy to sign books whenever and wherever, but if you’d like to catch us both at the same time, this is a good opportunity. We’re hoping to do another joint book signing in Los Angeles before long – more info on that when we get it arranged.

In the meantime, or if you’re not at SVP, or if you just like cool things, check out this rad claymation video of fighting apatosaurs, by YouTube user Fred the Dinosaurman. I love this. My favorite thing is that if you’re familiar with the previously-produced, static visual images of neck-fighting apatosaurs (links collected here), you’ll see a lot of those specific poses and moments recreated as transient poses in the video. This was published back in June, but I’d missed it – many thanks to Brian Engh for the heads up.