Book Review: The Map That Changed The World

The Map That Changed The World:  William Smith And The Birth Of Modern Geology, by Simon Winchester

I didn’t like this book as much as I could have had the author approached the subject differently.  As someone who reads a great many books and is aware of my own biases and worldview commitments, there are really two ways that a book like this can go sideways and despite having an appealing hero in the unsung William Smith (can one imagine a more generic name than that?) the author cannot avoid making a great deal of the discussion hinge on parochial English class politics and cannot overcome false dilemmas about science and religion, both of which greatly reduce the enjoyment of this book.  So we are left with a biography of sorts about an appealing person, but where everything that is tangential to his own sympathetic life story of somewhat self-induced poverty and the rampant theft of his maps by seemingly everyone involved in geology in England at the time detracts from the enjoyment of the book because the author is trying to score points against fundamentalists or make some kind of attack on British class snobbery, both of which are not aspects of any book that I appreciate.

Coming in at 300 pages of material in seventeen chapters, this book at least is able to keep up a good pace.  As if frequently the case in books, we begin in media res with a discussion of Smith’s escape from penury to the north of England (1).  After that the author discusses England at the time when Smith was born (2),various geological mysteries, and alternates discussions of Smith’s canal digging and the insights he gained as far as the locations where coal could be found with discussions of plate tectonics and other somewhat speculative matters of the dating of rock layers and other discussions of Smith’s interactions with others in his field as well.  There are discussions of Smith’s writing, his struggles with publishers, the hostility of the gentlemanly fossil collecting elite to more practical mineralogists, and the excellence about his map, and even about the way that Smith attempted to get some money by selling his collection to the British museum, and closes with a discussion of his professional vindication after he was an old man.  There are even discussions of the British system of debt prisons and their comfort level and seeming paradoxical aspect of imprisoning someone who is unable to pay a debt and also unable to work to repay a debt while imprisoned.

In reading this book, I am left with two levels, at least, of reflection.  On the one hand, I have a limited but real degree of sympathy for Smith, seeing him as largely responsible for his poor marriage, his financial mistakes of overspending on real estate, and for his decision to be a freelance geologist in a rather vulnerable time, but otherwise a decent enough fellow.  On the other hand, I have very little tolerance with the perspective or approach of the author, who seems unable to recognize that he and others like him are in the same position of the fundamentalists he likes to poke fun at by extrapolating from what is known and viewing as certainty that which is only speculation and interpretation.  One would think that he would be more charitable to those who act as he does, but he seems to think he stands on more steady ground than those he criticizes, which is deeply unwise.  This book is an example of one where the context of a man and his work matters just as much (if not more) as the man and his work itself.

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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