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the Complete Review the complete review - cultural history

The Last Dinosaur Book

W.J.T. Mitchell

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To purchase The Last Dinosaur Book

Title: The Last Dinosaur Book
Author: W.J.T. Mitchell
Genre: Cultural History
Written: 1999
Length: 308 pages
Availability: The Last Dinosaur Book
The Last Dinosaur Book - UK
  • The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon

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Our Assessment:

C+ : an excellent idea ultimately falls flat

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 12/1998 Phoebe Lou-Adams
London Rev. of Books . 18/2/1999 Wendy Doniger
The NY Times D+ 29/12/1998 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B- 25/10/1998 Mark C. Taylor
Publishers Weekly B+ 7/9/1998 .
Science B- 20/11/1998 Peter Dodson
The Times B 7/11/1998 Penny Perrick
TLS . 12/3/1999 Niles Eldredge

  From the Reviews:
  • "One need not share the author's views in order to enjoy his book. The man is amusing to argue against." - Phoebe Lou-Adams, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "The scholarship is successfully air-brushed by an elegant Post-Modern presentation. (...) The format is a cross between a beautifully produced children's book and the New Yorker." - Wendy Doniger, London Review of Books

  • "Mitchell attempts to persuade as much by amassing material as constructing arguments." - Mark Taylor, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)he book is a lumbering, dinosaurian tome that takes a potentially engaging subject, our current fascination with dinosaurs and the cultural reasons behind it, and turns it into absurdly pretentious treatise, gussied up with all the latest Marxist, feminist and structuralist allusions." - Michiko Kakutani, The NY Times

  • "I am disappointed, however, at the superficiality of his efforts." - Peter Dodson, Science

  • "Readers may find some of Mitchell's psychological interpretations of dinosaur iconology hard to follow. (...) Thus we read through virtually the entire book, learning about the "totemic" properties of dinosaurs, without really getting down to them. (...) As pure history, replete with wonderful graphics, The Last Dinosaur Book is a splendid compendium of dinosaur icons." - Niles Eldredge, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       W.J.T. Mitchell had a marvelous idea for a book. Taking as its premise the fact that there will come a "deep time" in the distant future when books about dinosaurs (and indeed humans) will be extinct, a part of the past much as dinosaurs themselves are now part of the past, Mitchell wants to explain what dinosaurs, as cultural icons, meant in the 20th century (and a bit before and beyond). It is a clever way of looking at the subject, and Mitchell, neither a dinosaur expert nor a dinosaur fanatic, is a promising guide. His concern is largely the iconography of dinosaurs, asking what it means that they have played such an important role at certain times in our history. Focussing largely on the dinosaur as seen through American eyes he leads the reader from Jefferson (littering the White House with dinosaur bones) to Jurassic Park and Barney.
       It is an attractively designed book, with lots of neat pictures and cartoons, but it is not sufficiently fun. Mitchell, a professor in English and in Art, gives us some interesting chapters (they are all relatively short), touching on various fascinating (and less fascinating) aspects of the dinosaur as icon. Many of his arguments are solid and convincing (though a few are banal), but regrettably it all does not add up to that much. Many small points take away from the possibility of a convincing and coherent larger picture.
       Mitchell's uncertain style is also of no help. The book is simply not a fun read, and there are times when it is difficult to slog through. Mitchell's own presence -- the first person narrator poking his head in the text -- also tends to annoy, as he keeps reminding us that as a child (and later) he did not really get what all the dinosaur-fuss was about. His opinion we could accept, but the presentation gets to be rather awkward.

       The book sounded (and also looked) very promising and we looked forward to reading it. It was a disappointment. To those who are fans of the dinosaur, it may be of interest, especially for the fun pictures and quotes. Mitchell's opinions, so drab and dry, are unlikely to upset anyone (they're too boring, as presented, to inflame). The marvelous premise (and fundamental idea -- Mitchell does have important and useful things to say) is lost in an overwrought and too academic text. It will not quickly go extinct -- it is a curiosity, and of some value -- but it will not be The Last Dinosaur Book, either literally or in the sense that Mitchell meant.

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The Last Dinosaur Book:
  • An exemplary publicity page from the University of Chicago Press, with several useful links and an excerpt. Exceptional !
Reviews: W. J. T. Mitchell: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       W.J.T. Mitchell is a Professor at the University of Chicago, in both the Departments of English and Art. He is the editor of the journal, Critical Inquiry. His book Picture Theory won the Charles Rufus Morey Award (awarded by the College Art Association).

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