Wide Orbit

Chasing the Sun
The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life
Richard Cohen
Random House, $20, 608 pp.

No book worth its salt, it has been said, should be read front to back, but rather by plunging in wherever chance and interest lead. Who said this escapes me, but I’d lay odds that if I go back through Richard Cohen’s Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life, I’d run across the answer. Stuffed full of more information than the brain is intended to retain, Cohen’s work is a perfect example of a book that should be grazed on, not read. I’ve already forgotten why, precisely, hours are broken down into units of sixty (it has to do with ancient Babylonian logarithms), the words to Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” and which Protestant countries rejected the Gregorian calendar as an instrument of popery. But did you know that “Mercator” is not the actual name of the inventor of the well-known cut-and-paste projection of the globe, but rather his honorific: “Gerardus Mercator Rupelmandanus,” or “Gerard, merchant of Rupelmonde”? All of my recent dinner guests do.

This is no knock on Cohen, who is an intellectual pack rat. His last book, By the Sword, had a similar MO, collecting all there is to know about sword fighting. (Cohen is a past Olympic fencer.) His books are not like the parade of single-subject studies, kicked off by Mark Kurlansky’s 1997 bestseller Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, that show how some ignoble element—Kurlansky’s follow-up was Salt: A World History—is...

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About the Author

Paul O’Donnell is a freelance reporter who often writes about religion and pop culture.