Friday, January 27, 2017

Book Review Two-fer: Brilliant Beacons and A Short Bright Flash

Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse
Eric Jay Dolin

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse
Theresa Levitt
History, biography

I hadn't particularly intended to read two books about lighthouses in quick succession. I'd borrowed Brilliant Beacons from the library; then I received A Short Bright Flash as a gift (thank you, Lisa). They cover enough common turf (or possibly surf) that I can compare and contrast them.

A Short Bright Flash is an intriguing book, nicely written, and wide-ranging--part biography, part science, part history, and so forth. In its early pages, especially, there's some dramatic tension. Once Augustin Fresnel has triumphed over all opposition--justifiably; he had an immeasurably superior product--the pace slackens; once he's dead of tuberculosis, the narrative starts to wander somewhat. It passes through Augustin's brother to various closely-tied businesses to the wider world to the U.S. to the American Civil War before finally subsiding, after page 215 or so, in a welter of miscellaneous distributaries. It's pretty good nonetheless, save for the vague sense that Levitt ran short of material before she made her page count.

Brilliant Beacons is, for the most part, decidedly more episodic. It begins with a series of vignettes of the building of the first Colonial-era lighthouses. These are fine--who'd have guessed that many of these early structures were funded by lotteries?--if a bit blog-post-like. Then there's a chronological-narrative section on the travails of the U.S. system up through the Civil War. Again, this is fine on its own merits, but it adds very little to what's in A Short Bright Flash. Finally, the book returns to a fitful meander of anecdotes and interesting bits, sculling gently towards the 21st century. Among the elements it touches on:

  • Women as keepers
  • Anecdotes of the keepers' lives
  • Bird conservation
  • A mini-war over egg gathering on the Farallon Islands
  • The New England hurricane of 1938
  • Various administrative shifts
  • A few examples of unusual engineering challenges
  • The Flying Santa
  • Lighthouses in popular culture
I don't mean to dismiss Brilliant Beacons. For what it is, it's enjoyable: IYTTSMSIYPETB. It is, unabashedly, for lighthouse lovers--in the same way that books about trains are aimed at train nuts, and books about baseball appeal first to baseball fans. A Short Bright Flash is of more general interest.

Nitpicky P.S.: both books assert that even a perfect mirror reflects only 50% of the light that falls upon it. Neither my memory of high-school physics nor a quick Google search supports that assertion. At the minimum, Levitt should have explained how and why this supposed effect occurs.

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