The British Library's Delightful Anthologies of Cats and Dogs in Literature

These charming books include some of the most famous (and infamous) dogs and cats known in literature, along with some lesser known tales and poems.

Cats: A Literary Anthology

Price: $22.95
Publisher: The British Library
Length: 160
Editor: Carolyn M. Jones
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-09

Dogs: A Literary Anthology

Editor: Catherine Bradley
Publisher: The British Library
Price: $22.95
Length: 160
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-09

Cats: A Literary Anthology and Dogs: A Literary Anthology are beautiful books. They have simple, attractive book jackets, and in between the graceful covers are excerpts, snippets, and occasionally entire pieces that focus on our four-legged friends. Illustrations -- of cats grinning, playing, or wearing reading glasses and of dogs on the battlefield, begging, or birding -- are plentiful. Included are animal-focused excerpts from the classic texts, more esoteric histories and even silly rhymes, making these two books a pleasure for the literary animal lover.

Sometimes there’s a sense of fun, for example Eleanor Farjeon’s poem “Cats Sleep Anywhere” that contains perhaps the ultimate cat truth: cats fit perfectly in cardboard boxes and often prefer them to the most expensive of cat beds. Sometimes cats or dogs are the hero; naturally Lassie makes an appearance. Sometimes they are the villain; after all neither dogs or cats come off particularly well in Richard Adam’s endearing 20th century novel Watership Down. There are snippets from Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Brontë, and Shakespeare. Some stories are all about the animal; some, such as the passage from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, only reference animals in passing.

Looked at one way, these charming books includes some of the most famous (and infamous) dogs and cats known in literature, along with some lesser known tales and poems. Looked at another way, these books can help us make sense of the often odd and contradicting ways dogs and cats fit into our society today. In this sense, these books provide not only a literary history but a cultural one as well.

This cultural history can be lighthearted, like the friendly banter between cat people and dog people.

One of the animals which a generous and sociable man would soonest become is a dog. A dog can have a friend; he has affections and character, he can equally enjoy the field and the fireside; he dreams, he caresses, he propitiates; he offends and is pardoned; he stands by you in adversity; he is a good fellow. -- Leigh Hunt, "Human Qualities"
It is a very inconvenient habit of kittens (Alice had once made the remark) that, whatever you say to them, they always purr. 'If they would only purr for 'yes', and mew for 'no', or any rule of that sort,' she had said, 'so that one could keep up a conversation! But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing?' Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

The chapter titles certainly say something about each species. In the dog anthology, we have “Loyal and Love”, “Dogs at Work and Play”, and “The Good Companions”. The chapters in the cat anthology seem just a little different: “Hunter”, “House Cat” and “Cat Tales”. But perhaps the most telling statement is an anonymous quote: “The dog is the only animal who has seen his god.” Arguably, no one would make the same statement about a cat, and most cat owners would probably be proud that their cats could not be described this way.

Some of the debates are more serious, though. Anyone who has Facebook, watches the news, or perhaps simply has a pulse should recognize that dogs and cats are both beloved and castoff members of our society. A few simple numbers make this point clearly. In the United States alone the ASPCA reports that approximately 2.7 million cats and dogs are euthanized each year, and globally, the World Health Organization estimates between 200 and 500 million dogs and cats are homeless.

Then swing to the other extreme: In the United States, people spend over $60 billion on their pets each year, and it’s not all on dry kibble and kitty litter. It's also luxury boarding facilities, organic treats and iFetch machines that, as the name suggests, actually “throw” balls for dogs to chase.

Cats: A Literary Anthology and Dogs: A Literary Anthology may not provide a direct road map to where we are with felines and canines in our literature today, but the books certainly offer insight into and illustrate the complicated relationships humans have with their friends.

Much like in real life, the books show the different extremes. Some readings illustrate the deep relationships and love humans have for their four-legged friends. Dogs: A Literary Anthology has an entire section dedicated to “Lost Friends” and Cats has a piece titled “Feline Goddesses of Ancient Egypt”. After reading these sections, phrases like “pet parents” and references to dogs and cats as “children” might not seem strange.

On the other hand, consider the stereotypes associated with black animals, primarily cats, but also dogs. Both anthologies have numerous references to black animals; most of them rather evil. Today, many (although there’s certainly debate over this as well) people believe black pets aren’t adopted as quickly as their yellow, brown, tortoiseshell, brindle, or calico peers. Several weeks ago, a black cat scooted across the ice during National Hockey League playoff game; naturally discussions about good and bad luck followed (how anyone could think this clearly terrified animal skittering across the ice could curse either team is anyone’s guess, though). Animal shelters take care when adopting out black cats near Halloween, worried that some might be adopting them to use in rituals or for sacrifice.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that so many of the powerful cats and dogs (some of which admittedly are powerfully scary) in this anthology are black. The description of the hound in The Hound of the Baskervilles most likely isn’t going to inspire many to adopt a large black dog: “A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare…”

Of course, even though The Hound of the Baskervilles includes a hellish hound, it’s a classic story, and it’s clear why this story was included in the anthology. As with any anthology, though, it’s easy to wonder why some stories are left out, but even the most avid reader will be introduced to a new feline or canine character, here, and that’s never a bad thing.


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