Book Reviews

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Appropriately ethereal and illuminating

Within the pages of Air: The Restless Shaper of the World, William Bryant Logan writes like an author from a different era — I imagine him as one of those 19th century polymaths, trudging over the English moors with a notebook and a telescope, discovering some new natural phenomenon — bringing the eye of a poet and the mind of a scientist to this wonderful book about air.

Rather than a study grounded in chemical analysis, it is an ode buoyed aloft by personal observation. Like the topic he explores, the book is filled with secret currents and unexpected swirls of revelation. His approach ranges from topic to topic, and from the personal to the historic, all linked by a profound sense of wonder at the world around us, the air moving across it and the many life forms and processes that fill the invisible layer or otherwise depend upon it.

Some of my favorite moments included:

  • paragliding spiders with, and this will give you nightmares, 100,000 spiders floating through the sky per acre over a four month period in one study plot
  • the story of how weather forecasting ensured the success of the D-day landing for the Allied forces, thereby changing the course of WWII, as well as a rousing defense of disruptive, non-linear thinking
  • how bats echolocate, and the strain on hearts — from bats to hummingbirds to vultures — to fly
  • a detailed description of the microorganisms in a “finger’s worth’ of sand and how the biggest creatures in this little world (at a millimeter) are a thousand times bigger then the smallest (about half a micron in diameter), the same difference between a shrew and a whale.
  • a vivid look at how sap rises in trees, giving off the water and oxygen that sustain all life (if only we treated them as such), and the tiny networks of tubes made up of lines of cells stretching from root to leaf stomata.

His writing is lyrical and powerful, for example:

  • “Bats ask and the universe answers.”
  • “A song requires two things: breath and listener.”
  • “She was an expert in duty and in worry.” [About his mother]
  • “The only reason that the world is not awash in the dead is that the fungi return to the earth.”

This is a wonderful, non-linear and satisfying book organized around a single, fascinating topic: air. It will definitely blow me in the direction of his others.