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The Waterless Sea reviewed in the Economist

on Tue, 10/02/2018 - 14:13

Human beings are fond of certainty. They trust their own senses to report what is true about the world, and are mildly outraged when their eyes or ears play them false. They also, often unreasonably, want things to last.

Though creation is in flux all around them, from the atoms that make up everything to global weather and the stockmarket, from Moon and tides to the daily flakes and spasms of bodily decay, they like to think that things will stay as they are. Stability is the comforting illusion by which people try to organise their lives.

And also extend them. Mortals cling to the hope that they will leave some permanent trace of themselves behind. They prefer to think that houses will not crumble and that works, on canvas or paper, will endure.

The grandiose or tyrannical put up monuments; writers make sure their books are deposited in libraries; the multitude order gravestones and label photographs, though all this floats in impermanence too.

Two new books grapple with this paradox by considering phenomena that symbolise instability itself. In “The Library of Ice” Nancy Campbell, a young poet, embarks on a quest to understand the relationship between ice, which is now melting faster than ever, and the fleeting written and spoken word.

In “The Waterless Sea” Christopher Pinney, an anthropologist at University College London, considers the history and meaning of mirages.

Ms Campbell, a penniless but intrepid traveller, braves miserable bus journeys, freezing rain, dark and intense cold, but still manages to write rapturously of the beauties of the Arctic.

Mr Pinney has gone no further than various libraries, but through the words of generations of desert travellers he paints the shimmering heat, the dazzling sand and the strange visions hanging in the sky.

He reproduces fascinating postcards, engravings and photos of floating ships and castles, palm trees and palaces that “possess every possible stability”, including one alleged photograph of a skyscraper city emerging from the Muir Glacier in Alaska. For ice, too, makes mirages, as light refracts through the different temperatures and densities of air.



Read full article here

The Waterless Sea: A Curious History of Mirages
Christopher Pinney
Reaktion Books
ISBN 9781780239323
Hardback, £18

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