A fine, pleasantly avuncular compendium of arachnoid lore from Hillyard, a specialist at London's Natural History Museum.
Yes, Hillyard readily admits, he is an arachnophile, and he wants you to be one, too. So he has gathered a fascinating social history, one any web-weaving critter can be proud of: star character in the Navajo creation myth, spinner of fine gossamer, long-distance traveler requiring nothing more than a strand of silk and a gentle wind. But Hillyard is careful to offer a few terrifying facts, wisely buffing the spider's tarnished image just so much. For it is a sad fact of nature that the arachnoid barrel harbors some really rotten apples, creatures with toxic brio enough to kill a horse in a few short hours. But why dwell on the macabre, suggests Hillyard, when there is beauty and talent to admire: Spiders have inspired artists from Shakespeare (he was no friend) to the wizards behind the Nazcan lines; they have served as medicinal cures for fever and ague and, when ingested by the handful, for constipation (who could doubt?). They're appreciated as forecasters of the weather, spinners of fantastic webs, eaters of all those insect pests. Who but a tarantula, hailing from Taranto in Italy, could have spawned the tarantella, that spirited dance thought to spell relief from the hairy fellow's bite? Despite their reputation, Hillyard notes, spiders are delicate things, an ideal indicator of environmental quality. And if you can't love them, then pity them their feeble eyesight, their bad digestion and poor circulation; let your heart go out to the male of the species and his miserable postcopulatory prospects.
Dryly humorous and, appropriately, captivating. As creatures who need all the friends they can get, spiders should proclaim a Hillyard Day.