Hey, Kids! Grab your seats - It's book review time again!
"The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology," by Simon Winchester, proved to be a bit of a disappointment. It's a wonderful book, and I'm sure for those who make their life in geology it's an excellent read, but for me it was a let down.
The problem may be that Winchester is too good a writer, or too accurate a biographer, to put down any details of which he's not 100% certain. Add to that the fact that the source materials focus on William Smith's professional work almost to the exclusion of any personal detail, and you have what should be a compelling personal journey that winds up reading more like a geology text in too many chapters.
Smith's place in history was assured by his 1815 publication of a map of England showing the geological strata and graphically demonstrating his theories that one could tell the age of the rocks from examining the fossils found within. This was radical stuff in 1815, and the work that led to this map took Smith some 30 years. Along the way he picked up a wife, who was possibly crazy, and adopted a nephew, who became his assistant, had business and financial troubles, which led to his being held in debtor's prison, and had a long running class-based feud with England's scientific establishment, which led to his works not being properly recognized for many years after their publication.
Unfortunately, only the last aspect of Smith's life is covered in any detail because that's all he wrote about in his own journal, or is covered in other source material. About the wife we're told that she was a burden to him, often sick, probably crazy, and possibly even a nymphomaniac. We're told all that, but we're never given examples, or are told how Smith felt about her. Did he love her anyway? Did they ever try to have children of their own? Did she embarrass him publicly? We don't know. About the nephew we're told that Smith took over his care when his sister and brother-in-law died, and that he became his assistant, but we're told nothing of their personal relationship. Was their's a close, familial relationship, or only one of master or mentor to apprentice? We don't know. And such is the frustration with the book (mine, at least).
What's left is endless descriptions of the various layers of the earth's crust, and how Smith could tell if an outcropping belonged to the Jurassic or Cretaceous periods.
I picked up this book because I loved Winchester's previous "The Professor and the Madman" so much. That's a book that's rich in personal detail, and is as important and fascinating in the descriptions of the lives of the subjects as it is in the descriptions of their professional works. "The Map that Changed the World" is likely stunning for students of geology, but may bore beyond belief the reader who doesn't care or know about item one of earth science.
So - In the end, I suppose a mixed review. If you get this joke (and think it's funny): "Subduction leads to orogeny" - or, if you have a bumper sticker that says "Stop Plate Tectonics" - Then this is a five star book that you will love every page of. If you don't even care to look up any of those words, then this is a three star book you should avoid. Which averages out to four stars: An occasionally fascinating and well-written book that is often dry and disappointing.