Book Review: Air (William Bryant Logan)

First edition jacket (williambryantlogan.com)

First edition jacket (williambryantlogan.com)

 

To an alert child, the air and the sky are actors. It is the purpose of this book to bring the air alive for the rest of us.

William Bryant Logan’s Air: The Restless Shaper of the World will surely make the shortlist of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books (edit: it didn’t). The RS is great at selecting page-turners that change how you see the world, like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (2004 winner) and James Gleick’s The Information (2012 winner). Air is worthy of such company.

Our atmosphere is nothing but paint on a billiard ball, yet it is a dynamic and complex place to exist. Billions of insects are whooshing overhead, hoping to descend to pastures new and not smack into a predator’s gaping mouth. Chemical signals waft around, advertising a meal, a mate, or both. Clouds of all flavours poof in and out of existence. Humans overcome their evolutionary disadvantages with wingsuits, microlights and 747s. These tales should enthral everyone: we could not breathe without air; could not exist.

The air can stand human plans on their heads or sweep them out the door like dried leaves.

One of the most engaging sections of the book is set in a 2000 acre nature reserve in upstate New York, where Logan calculates that 10 million gallons of air are breathed in by myriad creatures on any given day. Wow. Even more remarkable is the idea that the atmosphere is nothing but a slow cold flame. Read that back and think about it. Oxygen is reacting with almost everything in the air, releasing tiny amounts of heat. Ooh.

Logan is literally and metaphorically immersed in his subject, exploring the role of air in meteorology, geography, biology, history, art and music. The book is not a reference manual, however, but a travelogue, taking us on a journey to understand how air affects, well, everything. More than that, it is a personal journey: we hear of a stolen moment amongst the ‘blue fireworks’ of acrobatic dragonflies; of childhood sadness when told he had to run away from his kite to get it aloft; his fretful sleep; the memory of a lover’s scent; the dying breath of his father. Logan is affable and his book is truly a breath of fresh air.

Five box-kites out of five.

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