Thursday, May 6, 2010

Green book of the week - TIME Great Discoveries: Explorations that Changed History

This week we have on our weekly green book series a guest review of Dr. Patrick Meyer.

TIME Great Discoveries: Explorations that Changed History

Reviewed by: Patrick E. Meyer, Ph.D.

TIME Great Discoveries (Retail $29.99, Time Inc. Home Entertainment, 2009, Hardcover, 144 pages, ISBN 1603200835) is a large format coffee table book that demonstrates TIME’s commitment to high-quality, educational, and visually stunning entertainment. A compendium of many of the most important discoveries and explorations in modern history, the publication covers famous and lesser-known topics, providing an excellent balance between fairly well-known subjects and discoveries that may be entirely new to most casual readers.

The overall production quality is excellent, featuring vivid high-resolution glossy images, many of which fill the large 10.5 by 12 inch pages, others of which span both pages, for example the magnificent panoramic presentation of Pueblo Great Houses in Grand Canyon National Park or the engrossing image of the aftermath of an earthquake’s destruction in Italy’s Abruzzo region. The book holds together well; after a couple months on my coffee table, handled by numerous onlookers, the book’s spine remains tight and pages crisp, demonstrating quality craftsmanship.

TIME provides fascinating overviews of even the lesser-known discoveries, for example, the section discussing Britain’s Sutton Hoo burial mound, which contains the buried monarch King Rædwald who died around A.D. 624. This section contains a detailed background narrative on the historical and religious characteristics of the era not only when Rædwald lived, but also when the discoveries were made earlier in the 20th century. Through text and high-quality images, the book superbly paints for the reader mental images of these eras, allowing the reader to be engrossed in the content.

The book has an enjoyable mix of new and old discoveries, for example dedicating a few pages to the adventures and discoveries of Lewis and Clark at the turn of the 19th century, while also housing an impressive discussion on space exploration and discoveries made since the turn of the 21st century. The variety presented in the book is impressive, obviously requiring the writers and editors to have had knowledge of both modern and classic explorations.

TIME also explains to the reader the meaning of concepts that may be vaguely familiar but the details of which may be unknown to the average reader. For example, the book defines the term Viking, indicating that it is likely from the Old Norse vik, meaning “bay” and refers properly only to men who went on raids, rather than the culture as a whole. Similarly, the book points out that even today, societies around the globe continue to honor the Norse deities Odin, Thor, and Freya, which we recall every week, as Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday--a tidbit of information likely unknown by most.

Yet it is these lessons in history that sometimes are too detailed. By the time the reader gets to mid-book, they may forget that this is a book about the world’s great discoveries and instead have the notion that it is a history book attempting to provide a broad narrative of the days of old.

Given the broadness and variety of the content covered, the book could certainly do with more organization. As it is, the book seems haphazardly organized. There are four general sections, which present first the human-made past (such as Stonehenge and the Antikythra Mechanism), second planet Earth (such as Yellowstone National Park and polar explorations), third life on Earth (focusing primarily on dinosaurs), and lastly space exploration.

The reader may be puzzled as to why the explorations of the Vikings are presented in chapter 1 whereas the explorations of Lewis and Clark are presented in chapter 2. Perhaps the book would benefit from having a chapter dedicated specifically to adventurers, explorers, and quests. Within each chapter organization is also confusing, for example in chapter 1 where the book moves from the history of Pueblo Cliff Dwellings immediately to unearthing the ruins of Jamestown and then to exploring the ruins of the Titanic. The book moves from Lewis and Clark to exploring the Nile River with the flip of one page. There is a certain lack of flow from one topic to the next.

Some sections of the book seem totally out of place for a tome supposedly dedicated to discussing discoveries. For example, as presented, the book’s section on tsunamis has nothing to do with discoveries, per se, but rather provides a brief and recent history of tsunami events and explains how tsunami warning systems may help predict future events and save lives.

These criticisms aside, the book benefits from being very modern and up to date, especially in the chapter on space exploration. Having recently visited the famous, but out of date, National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, I was left wondering if humanity had made any progress exploring the final frontier in the last decade. TIME shows that humanity has made incredible progress in the last decade, having significantly progressed with mapping the surface of Mars, analyzing the makeup and cycles of the sun, and seeking out inhabitable planets in far-away solar systems. The book leaves the reader with the feeling that space is where most significant future discoveries will be made.

In summary, TIME presents a solid compilation of history, explorations, and discoveries, along with a few hypotheses of future developments. Although the book can be criticized for sometimes loosing focus and an overall feeling of disorganization, this book would nonetheless fit well on the coffee table of any reader interested in travel and adventure, prehistory and history, or photography and imagery.

The topics are diverse enough that any reader would likely find something of interest and value. With a retail price of less than $30 and a current price of about $20, this book is a steal with value well exceeding cost of the book itself. I confidently give it a solid 4 out of 5 stars and overall recommendation.

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