I usually love books like this, and I usually don’t review books that I haven’t finished, but I don’t know if I want to waste any more time on this one. I’m 93 hard-won pages into this and I think I’m going to quit. So far I’ve been told that William Smith is an amazing man. There are strata when you dig down in a mine that seem to be the same everywhere. William Smith is an amazing guy, because he was the first to notice this (except he wasn’t, but still, what a cool dude.) The strata slope sometimes. William noticed that the local stones were fossils, and wasn’t he smart for having been the first to figure that out? Not the first, but still, what a hero. William got a job surveying for a canal. Canals were big back then. William probably talked about rocks a lot, but people didn’t understand him, because they didn’t know he was a genius. He’d have some bad luck, but eventually triumph, but I’ll get to that later. William looked at rocks. He was smarter than other people. Wasn’t he great? Yeah, I get it. I’ve been told he’s important. I get that.
Here’s what I didn’t get: a compelling character, a compelling story, or information about geology. I love books about science. I love books about history. Books about the history of science? Should be a page turner. But the author is like a pre-teen telling his first shaggy dog story, only the story meanders and he interrupts himself every few minutes to go “but this is really good, I promise, just wait for it. I’m getting to the good part.”
And if there were ever a book that needed more pictures, this is is. I got tired of reading and rereading paragraphs to try to figure out what he was talking about. Either illustrations of how the canal cut through the hills revealing the strata, or just a better description would have really helped. And how about a better idea of what a surveyor actually did in the 18th century? When the author does talk about the countryside, it helps to put me in the story, but I just didn’t get a sense of the man’s life. It’s like the author assumes that everyone knows the geology of Southern England really well and the daily tasks of an 18th century surveyor so he doesn’t have to describe it.
I love the idea of this book, and I love the author’s description of the train that was featured in that 1950’s movie. The set-up is promising. The rest of the book just failed. Despite Winchester’s obvious admiration for William Smith, Winchester was unable to sell me on how and why William Smith mattered or why he was important, or even to get me fired up about geology.