Pairing the Pages: The Natural History Edition

April 06, 2016


Spring is (kinda-sorta, depending upon your location) upon us, guys! It poured earlier this week and promises to tomorrow. I just visited Seattle (where it was crazy sunny). What better time to discuss a book about rain? I guess this doesn't apply as well to Matt Kaplan's book—he only talks about rainstorms part of the time—but let's roll right on ahead with that introduction.

Cynthia Barnett's Rain: A Natural and Cultural History dives in to the minutiae of the weather that can make for a cozy day in or a frustrating day out (if you don't have the right gear). She covers everything from the nitty-gritty of how rainstorms develop, both the normal and not-so-normal kinds (acid, frog, etc.), to how rainfall is related to climate change and human migration. I loved learning the specifics of how devastating both droughts and deluges can be and how some of the driest cities compound their problem by letting their rainwater flow out to sea. Also, the wettest city in America totally isn't Seattle. (Spoiler alert: it's New Orleans, LA.)

Barnett goes beyond writing about rain in and of itself; she explores the people who loved it, prayed (and continue to pray) for it, and first learned to measure it. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was a huge rain buff and that he picked the absolute worst spot to build Monticello in regards to average precipitation? I didn't. She also covers how rain may have been the subject of "the first work of modern journalism" (pg. 71), how the famous mackintosh raincoat was born, and so much more.

Barnett also explains the history of a rain-related idiom, and idiom origin stories are the quickest way to my heart:

"The saying ['when it rains, it pours'] was an ad rather than an adage, developed for Morton Salt. Prior to 1911, table salt had the notorious problem of caking in rainy weather. That year, Morton began adding the anticaking agent magnesium carbonate to its salt. Executives wanted to emphasize the idea that it would pour even in the damp. The original pitch, 'Even in rainy weather, its flows freely,' proved clunky." - pg. 148, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History

Where Rain goes for depth, Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers goes for breadth. Kaplan takes well-known magical and mythological objects and phenomena and grounds them in past and current scientific inquiry. I learned a handful of cool things from the book, to be sure. Did you know that ancient Egyptian eye makeup may actually have been effective at staving off infections, despite being full of lead? Also, another fun idiom origin: the phrase "mad as a hatter" comes from the fact that hat makers used to inhale mercury fumes from the while treating their products. The repeated exposure caused them to become "pathologically shy, depressed, and forgetful, [and] some became permanently delirious" (Loc 1020).

Sadly, the fun tidbits and my own initial excitement could not make up for how many times I raised my eyebrows reading this. Kaplan tries for humorous and self-deprecating footnotes, but many don't land (really, you had to throw in jokes about pregnant women eating Ben & Jerry's?). Also, for a science writer, Kaplan uses far more causal language and fewer examples than I am comfortable swallowing. The results of one study might be intriguing and cause for further exploration, but definitive evidence they are not.

It might be unfair to compare these two books directly. Barnett gets nearly 300 pages, not counting endnotes, to stretch out and explore the nuances of her subject. Kaplan crams in nearly several dozen concepts in under 250 pages, notes and all. Science of the Magical's slimness might account for some of the language I mentioned earlier (we all know how misleading short and snappy science headlines can get), but I'd have preferred he covered fewer things in a better manner.

Overall, if you ever find yourself having to pick between the two, Rain gets my vote. If you want to learn a little about a lot and have a keen eye for picking out the good science from the bad, Science of the Magical may get the job done. I'd love to hear if it works out better for you.

Read any good natural history lately? Tell me about it!

Disclaimer: I received Rain: A Natural and Cultural History as a Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon prize in April 2015. I received Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers via NetGalley/Scribner.

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