- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

By Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin
University of Chicago Press, $27.50, 255 pages, illus.

While those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, those who write histories of the substance should take care to be clear, lest a few pebbles be lobbed in their direction.
Unfortunately, the best way to deal with Alan MacFarlane and Gerry Martin's disorganized, muddled, abstruse "Glass: A World History," might be lapidation. The title itself is a misnomer, since the book is not really a history of the substance, but rather a series of ill-conceived essays on topics such as medieval intellectual history, Asian myopia and anthropological approaches to the world. There is some discussion of the book's purported subject, but like the substance itself, those tend to be obscured by the less-translucent objects behind it.
The first sentence of the second chapter tells the readers that they might be in trouble, "No one is certain where, when, or how glass originated, but for the purposes of this book, this does not matter greatly." Within barely two pages of text, the reader is taken from 3000 BC to the time of Christ. By the end of the chapter, scarcely more than a score of pages later, the authors have covered the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
That chapter's end signals where the historical study of glass essentially ends and the rambling essays begin. While the fourth chapter is allegedly about "Glass and the Renaissance," it actually attempts to tell the world history of perspective in painting, and brushes topics ranging from Plato's realism to fine porcelain.
The rest of the book follows that trend, adding additional obscure topics to the discussion without contributing much clarity to the alleged subject. The authors have an almost uncanny inability to stay focused. In the chapter on "The Clash of Civilizations," there's a lengthy discussion on the intellectual tradition of Chinese painting, and in the following chapter, "Spectacles and Predicaments," there's a paragraph on how myopia may relate to success between the sheets.
Given the bedth, er, breadth of the discussion, and the relative shortsheetness er, shortness of the book, historical detail is often neglected. (It is only 200 or so pages, but reads far longer, thanks in part to an absence of the personal anecdotes and other gossipy items.) The authors allude repeatedly to the importance of the Venetian glass factories, but never explain the reasons for the industry's prominence there. There's practically no discussion of the development of stained-glass windows. The history of microscopes is "covered" in two pages. There is more discussion of Japanese art than there is of astronomy.
The authors make no attempt to bring the reader up-to-date on current scientific or (for that matter) artistic or architectural uses of glass. Their history basically ends at about 1900, with virtually no discussion of the modern making or modern uses of glass. It's amazing that references to Kabuki Theater and "Some Like it Hot" can be found in the Index, but references to skyscrapers and the Hubble Space Telescope cannot.
That failure is particularly glaring, since while the authors call glass "the sine qua non of the development of the experimental method we call science," they make almost no attempt to explain the science itself. For instance, there's no description of how light bends. Nor is there any attempt to describe how magnification works in either microscopes or telescopes.
That problem is made even worse by the absence of useful diagrams. While the authors make several mentions of concave, convex, and plano-convex lenses, there are no visuals to help the reader see what they look like. Nor are there diagrams to show how light bends through either those lenses, or another lens of some significance, the human eye. Unless the reader has some independent way of visualizing the shapes of the lenses or imagining rays of light bending though them, he will remain as ignorant as he started on utility of glass lenses in curing sight disorders.
Then there is the murky prose. A sentence at the beginning of a chapter subsection reads, "Furthermore, although not, of course, confined to anthropology, the working experience of trying to understand numerous societies and civilizations reminds anthropologists that casual paths are very complex." A few sentences later is the following statement, only unintentionally ironic, "Looking back over history and using mainly written records, we are often impressed by the purposive, planned, rational goal-directed nature of human life."
The book has a few worthwhile sections. The first appendix, which describes what glass consists of and how it is made may be the best written portion of the book. The author's suggestion that the use of glass was a critical factor in Western development especially in regards to the Occidental success and the Oriental failure is thought-provoking, but as the authors readily concede, it is rather a stretch to give any one substance that much credit.
What makes all of this so frustrating is that the subject clearly fires the authors' enthusiasm. At repeated points, they express wonderment at what the world would look like in the absence of the substance. Even there though, their analysis disappoints. They fail to trace back to how the absence of glass, or at least a glass instrument, would have affected history at a single point in time as counterfactual historians are wont to do. (What if, for instance, Theodore Roosevelt had been left without his glasses when his landing ship hurriedly debarked the Rough Riders in Cuba. Would the man who rode his valor at San Juan Hill into the presidency been out of sight and thus, out of the fight?)
Instead the authors settle for listing glassy substances, the absence of which would make our civilization almost impossible.
Perhaps the most shattering pity is that, in the words of Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy, the book could have been a contender. Throughout the volume, the authors drop tantalizing hints at ground that could have been surveyed, historical lines that could have been examined. By the end of the volume though, the one thing most evident is that those individuals in search of an understanding of the history of glass should turn elsewhere.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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