Books to Note: Summer 2011

Book shelf.

Mark R. Finlay. Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009. 336 pp. $49.95.

Facing international revolutions, changing economies, and new technologies, American scientists, industrialists, agriculturalists, and entrepreneurs sought to create viable alternatives to rubber. This book tracks efforts to develop a vital national commodity in both peace and wartime. Growing American Rubber begins with the second decade of the 20th century—when the United States emerged as an international power with a heavy dependence on foreign raw materials—and follows the story to the present day. Humanity’s current dependence on raw materials like petroleum illustrates the continuing "resource wars” that Finlay notes will only become more pressing in coming decades. The middle sections of the book on guayule procurement and crop production during the rubber crisis ofWorld War II are especially noteworthy, both for their pioneering research and for their poignant coverage of the experiences of interned Japanese Americans recruited to work on
the rubber project.–Betty Smocovitis

John Knechtel, ed. Air. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010. 272 pp. $15.95.

This curious collection of essays, poetry, and artwork deals with “air”in every imaginable sense of the word. Take the story of one woman's experience hanging pheasants: by slightly decomposing the birds in air, she enhances their otherwise dull flavor. A history of pneumatic tubes follows, demonstrating the ways we once communicated using air. Elsewhere, an artist captures the image of dust on a page. Architecture and urban design are a focus of this collection, though chemistry is also included—the essay retelling the history of the earth’s atmosphere, for example. Perhaps most interesting is a series of photos entitled “HVACuus,” in which the exhaust vents of museums spew vapor that just might include microscopic particles from famous art. Though disparate in approach, the works in Air—from scientific to poetic, monumental to personal—emphasize the invisible matter that surrounds and connects us all. –Will Kearney


John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson. Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine,1880–1930. New York: Blast Books, 2009. 208 pp. $50.00.

Dissection documents the surprisingly common practice of photographing medical students with their cadavers during a period in which dissection was not only largely a secret practice but also one that often involved the illegal acquisition of bodies. The collection of 138 photographs, aided by John Harley Warner’s and James Edmonson’s essays, reveals the social and cultural history of dissection and medical education in America. Some images include dissected bodies, often in undignified poses and described with irreverent captions, as well as disturbing visual references to racial violence and lynching. At exactly the moment when medicine was professionalizing in America, it fashioned an image, through these photographs, that was less clinical and detached. The book is both accessible and interesting, and I suspect only a modern discomfort with death will limit readership. Such discomfort was produced as death became an extraordinary rather than everyday sight—roughly at the time the remarkable pictures in this volume were being produced. –Carin Berkowitz

Geoffrey Owen. The Rise and Fall of Great Companies: Cortaulds and the Reshaping of the Man-Made Fibres Industry. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 320 pp. $85.00.

What makes a company successful over the long term? To help answer this question Geoffrey Owen provides a business biography of Cortaulds, once the world’s largest manufacturer of man-made fibers. Focusing on Cortaulds’s birth, growth, decline, and dissolution allows Owen to introduce broader historical pressures. In early 20th century Britain, Cortaulds rose to become a major player on the back of one of the earliest man-made fibers, viscose. Greater success followed via the explosive growth of man-made and synthetic fibers after World War II. But by the 1970s an increasingly competitive market turned fibers into just another commodity like oil, subject to price and production fluctuations. Owen provides a thorough examination of the players, practices, and decisions made and not made during the life span of a company that produced paint, fiber, wood pulp, and clothing. Ultimately, Owen believes no single factor killed Cortaulds, but rather a declining industry and an inability to decide what kind of company it wanted to be. –Michal Meyer


John Quackenbush. The Human Genome. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2011. 189 pp. $14.95.

In The Human Genome, Harvard professor and cancer biologist John Quackenbush takes a crack at the most ambitious science project since the development of the atom bomb. The atom bomb is an appropriate comparison, since the roots of American genomics research lie in the Atomic Energy Commission’s study of radiation’s effects on health. But readers will find it was the questions posed by the forefathers of molecular biology—from Darwin toWatson and Crick—that drove governments, scientists, and private corporations to sequence the human genome. Quackenbush himself is deeply concerned with the technical, medical, and ethical implications of the Human Genome Project. He cautions against overestimating the power of genomics; as scientists have parsed data from the project, they have realized that disease is a product of a complex set of both genetic and environmental factors. While Quackenbush warns that thehuman genome opens a Pandora’s box of ethical, economic, and political dilemmas, he ultimately remains optimistic about the power of genomics to cure disease and better human existence—well as that of all life. –Will Kearney