Wide Orbit

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 actually an overlooked lynchpin of history. It’s difficult to overlook the sun, after all, as Cohen points out: “Without the sun,” he says in his preface, “none of us would exist.”

Not that there isn’t underdiscovered history in the sun. Cohen flicks at the serious historical work tracking the effects of sunspots on climate, and therefore on crop yields and in turn on political upheaval, from peasant revolts in the Middle Ages through the Thirty Years’ War. But he has no particular thesis to peddle. Occasionally he hints that we humans are still subject to ancient superstitions about the star that lords over our days, but he never develops this line of thought. As he says in his preface, “I began with no particular agenda.” He simply follows the sun wherever it goes—and even where it doesn’t: we learn about creatures, like the Texas blind salamander and a fish fixed with an appendage like a mini book light, that occupy strata where the sun’s rays never penetrate.

In his pursuit, Cohen aligns himself with the “scholar-adventurers,” a tradition in which the unknown is not somewhere beyond the horizon, but contained in forgotten manuscripts and ancient libraries. Scholar-adventurers spawned the Oxford English Dictionary and found their apotheosis in the bibliomania of the Victorian age. Cohen is a jet-age version, filing occasional dispatches from the banks of the Ganges and the slopes of Mount Fuji, but at the heart of his journey are literature, painting, and other forms of high culture. Pick at random from the index, and you turn up a mostly humanistic assortment of readings: Durrell, Lawrence; Dvořák, Antonin; Dyer, Geoff; Dylan, Bob; Dyson, Frank—novelist, composer, novelist, folk singer, scientist.

This sample probably undercounts scientists, whom Cohen consults frequently, and whose work he is adept at explaining, from the flawed conjecture of early philosophers to modern-day astronomers. Nonetheless, I wished for more of them. Cohen’s two pages on the Edwardian-era eclipse specialist Dyson, who proved Einstein’s prediction about gravity’s effect on light by observing the bend of the sun’s rays, are worth his entire survey of sun-oriented painting from Turner to Hockney. “Light was the main subject for Paul Cézanne, too,” Cohen writes—“not the sun itself but its effects.” This is no doubt true—I found myself, as a parlor game, thinking of artists for whom the sun and its effects were not a central concern—but it’s also the part of the tour where I slip off to shop for a few post cards until lunch.

This is the trouble with scholar-adventurers: they tend to see all their findings as being of equal significance, and none as the ultimate truth. The plain old adventurer is after something else. He or she adopts the local dress, drinks the Kool-Aid, and ends by facing the savage in us all. Cohen gives us tales of sun worshipers driven to savagery in their attempt to make the sun do their bidding. He doesn’t ask whether we, with our SPF-75 skin creams and solar farms, are still attempting to control the star that rules us. Instead, the reader is carried along on a companionable and untroubled flow of knowledge that, for all its breathless fascination, leaves us strangely untouched. In a quotation from his short story “Eclipse,” John Updike suggests that our savage suspicion of the elusive orb is still alive, only to reappear later in Chasing the Sun to talk about how he used to sunbathe to cure his outbreaks of psoriasis, until his diseased skin no longer responded. “At forty-two,” Updike wrote, “I had worn out the sun.”

Books like Chasing the Sun aren’t designed to change minds, however, but to fill them, and this Cohen does to the point of testing the mind’s endurance. I’ve been keeping Chasing the Sun on my dresser, where I can pick it up as I wait for children to get their shoes on or my wife to choose her earrings. About the time Cohen launches into another subject and my brain gags on the surfeit of knowledge, I clap the book shut, not wiser, perhaps, but ready for company.

 


Related: Burns, Tom Burns, by Richard Cohen

Published in the 2011-07-15 issue: 
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Paul O’Donnell is a freelance reporter who often writes about religion and pop culture.

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