Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

Periodic Table

-Book Cover

Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc was a spontaneous purchase in the airport. And for a while, I tore through the first half of it. But weeks later, I haven’t finished it. Partly, that’s just me not being trapped in an airplane, reading. Partly it’s that the book reminds me of A Voyage Long and Strange.

As with that book, the author here has a framework that makes his book a series of topical essays. Fine. But also like that book, the individual essays’ root subject is the small “vacations” the author takes to “discover” information about the ostensible subject. So here, the author tells the story of visiting the odd little shop in [fill in the blank] that sells [fill in the blank] that has a part that relies on X element. Tell everything in the language of “So I went to visit…” and you have a pretty boring travelogue dressed up as a cultural history of chemistry.

There’s more to the book that that, but the weight of this organizational choice overbears it and makes it feel like a museum tour led by a chatterbox guide who doesn’t really want to talk about (or believe we want to hear about) the thing we signed up to see.

Posted August 11, 2012