Peter Hillyard,
The Book of the Spider:
A Compendium of Arachno-Facts
and Eight-Legged Lore

(Avon, 1994)

I like spiders. That's the kind of statement that makes people look at me as if I'm out of my eensy-weensy mind, but I don't care. I like spiders. I have no desire to own one, and I've suffered more than my share of spider bites, but I find them fascinating. In the summer, the front of our house becomes an arachnid condominium, covered with mosquito-fat spiders lazily rising and sinking on their draglines. I'd even go so far as to say that I identify with spiders, but perhaps that is best saved for a "rambling" at another time.

While browsing some reviews of natural history books, I was thrilled to stumble across Paul Hillyard's The Book of the Spider and was even more thrilled to discover that the library owned a copy which I checked out immediately. A spider specialist for the Natural History Museum in London, Hillyard maintains "the national collection of spiders" as well as advises on "the human aspects, or, rather, on the problems that arise when humans and spiders meet." The book is delightful and accessible, written with dry wit and an obvious relish for the subject. (Since he includes one or two recipes for cooking and eating certain large spiders, one can assume that many others have relish for the subject as well.)

Did you know that there was a real "Miss Muffet"? She was likely Patience Muffet, the daughter of Reverend Dr. Thomas Muffet (or Mouffet), a 17th century scholar who was extremely fond of spiders and studied them avidly. He also incorporated spiders and spider webs into home remedies with which he dosed poor Patience, likely straight into a raging case of arachnophobia.

Hillyard weaves tantalizing bits of information into his narrative. He starts out with a frank discussion of arachnophobia, which leads into the spider as a theme in folklore, legend and myth. (Think Anansi and Robert the Bruce.) He goes on to discuss various types of spiders -- aeronautical and venomous -- then goes on to describe more unusual "remarkable" spiders.

A book about spiders would not be complete without a chapter on webs and spider silk, and Hillyard obliges, including a description of how an orb web is spun. He covers the discovery of spiders in South America, a brief history of spiderology, and makes a plea for the conservation of the spider. In the final chapter, "From Arachnophobia to the Love of the Spider," Hillyard sums up his case for befriending the arachnids, pointing out that the quantity of insects they eat should be more than enough justification for their protection.

Reference notes and an index round out the witty and entertaining text. Hillyard's easy conversational style and the placement of graphics and cartoons throughout the text adds to the liveliness. Only the chapter on spiderology bogs down a bit, but as for the rest, only a diehard arachnophobe will remain unmoved.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]