Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Disappearing Spoon

By Sam Kean

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, and for me, that’s really...well, unusual. If you had asked me a couple of years ago how I felt about non-fiction, I would have described it as eye-glazingly dull, a dry recitation of facts. But now I actually scour the non-fiction shelves at the library eagerly. I know -- it’s crazy!

The only explanation is that non-fiction has gotten better. (It can’t be me that’s changed.) The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean is a fine example of this better, more interesting non-fiction. Kean doesn’t skimp on the facts. He’s packed his book with oodles of information about the elements. What saves his book from being merely a mind-numbing collection of elemental characteristics may be gleaned from the book’s full title: The Disappearing Spoon and Other Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements.

Yes, it’s the madness and weirdness that brings the elements to life, and Kean seems to have dug up a fascinating story for virtually every element on the periodic table. For example, the title’s disappearing spoon refers to a (nerdy) practical joke in which unsuspecting victims are given a gallium spoon to stir their tea. I was particularly interested in the stories surrounding the radioactive elements, which ranged from an ex-KGB spy that was murdered with polonium-laced sushi in 2006 to a boy scout that tried to build his own nuclear reactor.

Reading non-fiction like this is not only painless, but fun, and I’m convinced that I’m retaining all of those pesky little facts better that I normally would because I’ve so enjoyed learning them. Just wait until we meet at the next dinner party and I regale you with tales of elemental hijinks. If you’ve long despaired of enjoying non-fiction, perhaps now is the time to give it another try.


Lula O said...

Ah, well that's just the coolest thing ever! who knew the periodic table could be so interesting. It's hard to believe we actually liked science before it was cool and easy to like science. We had to read boring stuff like academic text books. It's a wonder we didn't kill ourselves..
I bow to your greatness.

Stephanie said...

I know, right? I want a gallium spoon! But it turns out they're not readily available. Turns out drinking liquid gallium is a bad idea. Humph.

I think writers, at least, are realizing that truth really is stranger than fiction and can be just as interesting. You just have to include ALL of the truth, warts and all. Now we just need those college professors to catch on, too.

I think it's safe to say you'd love this book, Lula! :)

Mandy said...

What a fun book! I think I will have to check this one out. It sounds like it is right up my alley. I always loved my Chemistry classes and I always liked learning about the Periodic Table (I thought it was fun doing an entire paper on Uranium and memorizing the different element symbols for class - does that make me a dork?). Thanks for the review.

Stephanie said...

In that case, Mandy, you will love this book. And if you're a dork, I guess that makes me one, too. Shall we buy t-shirts?

Better yet, have you seen these?

Lula O said...

oooooo, christmas presents! Personally I liked Ship Happens.

hmsgofita said...

I read this a few months ago for my online book club! Fascinating. Fun to find someone else out here who's read it! The gallium spoon fascinated me.