By Greg Bem
I don’t tend to read “science” books and I don’t tend to review them either, but I have been fascinated with water and all-things-water-related for years now, in my ongoing visual studies, and I couldn’t pass up Jack Challoner’s recent tome on the subject. Water: A Visual and Scientific History is a volume meant to appeal to anyone intrigued by water and its many contexts, be it the history of water, the history of studying water, the implications of water, the chemistry of water, and the relationship between living things and water (to name but a few of those contexts).
A science/history (or science history) book is overall what this feels like: each section is dense with explorations of concepts, terms, and the work of many scientists. Challoner’s approach to exploring water is literally exploratory: there is hardly a sense of linearity to the flow, despite the book’s six sections (“Water, Water, Every Where”; “Blue Planet”; “H2O”; “Across Three States”; “At Water’s Edge”; and “The Hub of Life”). Instead, reading from one cover to the other cover is following a person as passionate as I am about water trying to bring as much as possible to the reader. There is some form, but otherwise it’s a flood of information.
Where the book and its arc leads is a bit trying, and as I read it (again, from cover to cover) it felt a bit like reading a textbook, but the phenomena of water and phenomenal visual aids make the read compelling and hydrophilic, to say the least. Still, I wouldn’t recommend reading from cover to cover unless you have the passion, drive, and attention that won’t succumb to the walls of text. Instead, the book may serve best as a reference text for your work, or a “coffee table” book that can lend its inspirations in more approachable pools and streams.
The book’s “visual history” is more elusive in Water, and I found, as a poet, that there could be a significant expansion on the cultural elements of water as explored in the book. I appreciated Challoner’s inclusion of famous and not-so-famous lines of scientists, artists, and even poets across the chapters (the book’s first section, “Water, Water, Every Where”, is taken from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Water is held up to a high poetic standard (as, honestly, it should be). And yet much of the book loses this poetic gilt after a few pages into each section.
Challoner does a good job at establishing an understanding of the cultural importance of water (overall) and alluding to the canon’s reliance on the aquatic across the generations and across the globe; however, the deeper dives into how humans interact with water beyond sustenance leaves much to be desired. I could easily see an expansion of this book that includes more significant exposition on the history of our relationship with water and religion and spirituality, art and performance, athletics and sports, astrology, exploration, and even sexuality. The book does contain acutely artistic images, many of which are pulled from open sources or the public domain, but I never felt like Challoner reached the “visual history” that the book proclaims to contain. One exception that resonated with me during my read, and is a highlight of the book as a whole: Blue Planet’s descriptions of Wilson Bentley’s photographs of snow crystals and Ukichiro Nakaya’s creation of snow crystals. This literal form of visual history (more specifically: photographic history) is compelling and supplements the science of the book wonderfully, albeit briefly.
Visual history aside, Water is full of exceptional moments of discovery, and having the information in one text feels generous and significant for scientists and artists. A Wikipedia rabbit hole may eventually lead to much of the same information, but Challoner has pleasantly and consistently designed a reading experience that will quickly expose the readers to countless terms and concepts (and inspirations) across a mere 200 pages. Of my many discoveries during the read, I learned about pancake ice (sea ice that bump together have raised edges) (page 62), that some of the molecules in my coffee may be the same that were “shed as tears by William Shakespeare” (page 46), that water vapor on Earth is always mixed with other gases and cannot exist here in its pure state (page 104), and that a glass of water is heterogenous (it contains a structure and is not ubiquitous (page 121). These facts feel like a collection of trivia at first, but for those of us writing through water, thinking about its properties and interactions, this text demystifies and alleviates the unknown.
As we move toward water scarcity, water wars (and other conflicts), and an ongoing critical approach to improving our relationship to water (globally), I cannot help but think this book arrived at the perfect time. Why take this amazing, miraculous substance for granted? Why not learn more about it? Challoner has offered a fantastic opportunity, and I cannot recommend it more to artists, writers, and people of the everyday to improve their own relationship to and thinking around water.
You can find the book here: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/water-2
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com