three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
15-Mar-Apr-2005
user_rating: 
0

An Intimate History

A-EarthFortey, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, traveled the globe—Italy, Hawaii, Newfoundland, Scandinavia, India, and North America—to explore Earth’s billions-year-old geological history. Mt. Vesuvius’s devastating 15th-century eruption, the salt flats of Oman, Iceland’s hot springs, and California’s San Andreas Fault all reveal Earth processes still at work. The movements of plates, the rise of mountain chains, and the growth of ancient continents and seas, Fortey argues, all have shaped the "character" of Earth and all its plant, animal, and human inhabitants. Introducing the work of seminal 19th and 20th-century geologists, Fortey also shows how our understanding of these places has shifted over time—and continues to change, just like Earth.
Knopf. 429 pages. $30. ISBN: 0375406263

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"His writing is almost cinematic in style, providing details—wildflowers poking out of cracks in a stone wall, or the sound of water rushing by—that are so important to fleshing out the location atmosphere in a film, details that should inspire all travelers and make them want to visit distant lands." Simon Lamb

Baltimore Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Fortey’s narrative meanderings do occasionally grow tiresome, but for the most part, they enliven an already fascinating tale, providing readers with material for the next cocktail party or appearance on Jeopardy!" Michael Stroh

Geographical 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In piecing together his geological jigsaw, Fortey makes us realise what a dynamic and fascinating planet we live on, but soberly reminds us of our insignificance. … The author clearly has a real passion for his subject, and you can’t help but get swept along in the tide of his enthusiasm." Sarah Barnett

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"He writes gracefully, packing his pages with vignettes of the geologists who butted heads until they had figured it all out. … I loved the ride over the amazing Deccan Traps of India, though I think I got a bit lost in Newfoundland." Nicholas Wade

Science News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As he has done in his previous books Life and Trilobite, Fortey reveals the history of our planet in a thorough and engaging manner."

Critical Summary

Fortey, the leading scholar of trilobites (a giant marine wood louse that lived 450 million years ago), turns to geological history in Earth. He calls his work an "anti-textbook," and this moniker aptly describes the pros and cons of his book. In colorful and dramatic vignettes that delve deep inside Earth processes, from India’s lava flows to the formation of the Alps, Fortey makes clear that Earth is a dynamic place beyond human control. But, if his descriptive travels generally lack geo-jargon, they sometimes center on digressive details more than organizing themes. More maps would also have helped. Despite these criticisms, Earth is the "ultimate travel book" for "every person who wants to really know and understand the place we live on" (New York Times Book Review).

Also by the Author

Life A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (1998): Award Star A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Fortey traces life from its first traces to the present. "Anyone with the slightest interest in biology should read this book." New York Times Book Review