book-reviews

The Disappearing Spoon

by Sam Kean

Rating: ★★★

While it presents itself as a compilation of anecdotes about chemicals -- a sort of pseudo-historical compilation of interesting stories, one for every element -- The Disappearing Spoon seems to have ambitions towards being something else. The facade of a systematic progression through the elements eventually starts to wear thin, and to provide a narrative force to keep the reader from shelving it in the bathroom, Kean almost writes a history of the periodic table itself.

The key word there is almost. While a historical narrative on this subject could easily prove gripping, Kean's desire to make this a popular science book rather than a history is evident. The story we see propelling us along is left too shallow -- we certainly see in outline that there is something interesting going on here, but it doesn't get the treatment it requires to make it engrossing. Trapped to some degree between these two possible states, the book flounders.

This is not to say that it is without merit. Many of the stories about elements are set up and delivered with style, and Kean should be applauded for his diligence in finding something interesting to say about numerous little-heard-of chemicals. Sometimes the writing even borders on the poetic. As a refresher on basic chemistry, or a source of interesting footnotes, The Disappearing Spoon is a suitable enough book for anyone from high-school onwards. It is the encyclopedia-like construction, and sometimes brief treatment, which lets down what is a technically proficient piece of writing-about-science: if you could go back to the editor and get this ironed out, there could be a very good book.