Book Review: The Planets

The Planets, by Dava Sobel

This book, as one might expect, is very much a product of its time.  It also has some of the most insightful comments as to why Pluto is such a big deal for some of us [1]:  “People love Pluto.  Children identify with its smallness.  Adults relate to its inadequacy, its marginal experience as a misfit (214).”  That said, while I found the book an enjoyable read, I also found it a somewhat odd book, and a big part of that oddness was the result of the author doing her best to insert herself and her own family story into the story of the planets.  It’s not hard to understand why she wanted to do this, although it is likely that few people will read this book wanting to know more about the author or her grandmother’s experience in Ellis Island dealing with a quarantine and the threat of deportation for having an illness.  If you want information on the planets, though, this is still an enjoyable book to read that at least provides some amusing and intriguing discussions about the planets as they have been viewed in history and in culture.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into twelve chapters.  The first chapter gives an overview of the work and discusses the way in which our experience in the solar system has been extrapolated into other planets in other solar systems that we are beginning to examine (1).  After that the author talks about the sun (2), Mercury (3), Venus (4), Earth (5), the Moon (6), Mars (7), Jupiter (8), Saturn (9), Uranus and Neptune (10), Pluto (11), and then a short coda about planeteers (12).  Each of the discussions has its own focus.  When talking about the planet Mercury, there is a discussion about the mythology of that false god.  Venus leads to a discussion about dangerous beauty and the threat of global warming.  Alongside the moon the author discusses lunacy and the sterility of the moon and its eventual equilibrium with the earth.  And so it goes throughout the book, as the author discusses the relationship between planets and astrology, between planets and mythology, between planets and views of chemistry and associated elements, and the way that planets have found themselves a part of popular culture and have all been found to have surprises once they were examined in closer detail by more contemporary researchers.

My own feelings about this book are highly mixed.  I’m not someone who is inclined to view mythology free, whether one looks at ancient mythology about Mercury or its equivalent being some kind of messenger between heaven and earth and the grave, or the way that the planets and the moons often have heathen implications, and that Venus has feminine geography while Uranus’ moons come from Shakespeare.  While some of this information is amusing and worthwhile, the author both inserts herself into the story too much for my tastes and has views that I have no sympathy with.  Even when the author says something I would agree with about the perfect one to one correspondence between the sun and moon that allows for total eclipses as being an indication of design, it is hard to tell if the author is being serious or just trolling her audience.  And when I cannot fully trust a writer because I doubt her integrity, it is hard to really fully enjoy reading an author or getting fully invested in her works, and that is certainly the case here.  This book would have been better had the author been more honest and less political, but that is often the case in what I read, alas.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/06/22/book-review-how-i-killed-pluto-and-why-it-had-it-coming/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/07/16/searching-for-pluto/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/03/29/when-the-invisible-has-gone-missing/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/06/22/you-are-the-first-one-of-your-kind/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/07/12/where-spaceships-go-to-die/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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