Receiving books for Christmas raises the question: What possible reason did anyone have to give me this? Last year it was Martin Amis's novel. The Information (Knopf). The book is a morbid investigation of the male mid-life crisis, full of exaggerated self-loathing: what was my brother trying to tell me? This year it was my uncle's turn: why exactly did he send me a copy of The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: The Lost History of Europe's Animal Trials (Faber) by E. P. Evans (first published in 1906 but recently reissued in paperback)?
In this book a pig is tried and executed for murder; a rooster is burned at the stake for laying an egg; some rats are solemnly acquitted of theft after eating the barley crop. We are assured that the book is not a Swiftian satire, a kind of Animal Farm of the law courts, but an account of events that really happened, trials that actually took place during the Middle Ages. Fair enough, but what signals am I giving off that led my uncle to think to himself: This volume of obscure Victorian pedantry will definitely appeal to my nephew?