Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Splintered Review of a Book...

(Blog author's note: This is the first official book review I've written since 6th grade, so... it might be a little rough. It is something I need to get used to, however, as our guild librarian retired as of this last newsletter and he used to do a book review for every issue. I will probably alternate between book reviews and tool reviews just to give myself some variety. You can expect to see both here, very much in the same way Chris Schwarz's blog entries usually end up as forewords in a future issue of PW or Woodworking Magazine.)

I like a good book where I can imagine the author is talking directly to me, like he's sitting on my sofa, enthralling me with story after story. That is pretty much how I felt about Spike Carlsen's A Splintered History of Wood. It isn't one of those books you can plow through in just one sitting, though. You have to read it more like you read Robert Fulgum or James Krenov - one chapter at a time, taking a break in between sittings to absorb what you've just read. You can't read this book when you're in a hurry, either. You have to approach it with a calm and relaxed mind; you have to be willing to be drawn away from your hectic day into a narrative about one of every woodworker's favorite topics - wood.

As you read the first chapter on extraordinary woods, you'll develop mysterious cravings and desires when Spike reports on where you can get 50,000 year old Kauri wood (I have some), discusses WOOD PORN with Mitch Talcove, and interviews people who make a living salvaging redwood logs. Later, you'll be awed by stories of woodworkers who are blind, artists who can carve your name in a pencil with a chainsaw, and an inspirational visit with Mira Nakashima. Spike then dives into wood as it relates to music and sports, detailing what goes into making a world class violin, a Steinway piano, a persimmon wood golf club, and a pool cue.

With a knack for making even the mundane seem amazing, Carlsen jumps into stories about wood used in construction, from people who live in trees to the 36-year remodeling project called the Winchester House. His chapter on weapons and war, interesting to anyone who ever played knights as a child, covers such topics as catapults and the English long bow. He ends his book on a note he describes as, "emotional, environmental, and political." In this final chapter, which includes an interview with Patrick Moore (one of the founding members of Greenpeace), he details reasons for using wood more than steel, concrete, and plastic. He also discusses methods for maintaining natural forested areas while planting trees specifically for harvesting and his thoughts on purchasing endangered woods. I don't know - it all seemed like common sense to me.

If you are interested in hearing more about this book by the author himself, and you live in the St. Louis area, you should consider attending the monthly St. Louis Woodworkers Guild meeting at Woodcraft (2077 Congressional Drive, St. Louis, MO, 63146) this evening (Thursday, November 19th). Spike Carlsen will be there, giving a presentation on his book. The meeting is free to non-members, but of course we would love it if you were to join up! It will be the best $25 you've ever spent on woodworking!


Anita Campbell said...

Good book review, Ethan. Makes me want to read it -- and that's saying something because I'm not even into woodworking!

Wood porn, huh? :)


Ethan said...

Thanks, Anita!

It was definitely a fun read and comes highly recommended by this blogger.

Incidentally, the meeting went very well. We had 65 people (members and guests) attend the meeting and Spike completely sold out of the copies he had on hand. In fact, he had to fill out several "IOU" cards and had to mail out already-paid-for signed copies when he got home.

I'd like to start making a book review a monthly part of my blog, so keep an eye out for future reviews!