A fact-filled celebration of wood in human history.
Green (History/Northeastern Univ.), a New Hampshire woodworker and author (The Uncertainty of Everyday Life 1915–1945, 1992, etc.), lays out all you could ever want to know about wood—and then some—in this informed, lively and genial account of the “amazing” substance that has given us everything from naval empires to heat and shelter to toothpicks. In thematic chapters, the author describes the structure and appearance of types of wood, how wood is used to create things (ships, furniture, etc.), its role in warfare and play, the aesthetics of woodworking and the ways in which human existence has been altered by small wooden things (matchsticks, clothespins, pencils). Encyclopedic enough to be a useful reference, the book conveys the craft and pleasures of working with wood and the importance of the “great triumvirate” of the shipwright, the carpenter and the cooper in pre-industrial and early industrial societies. Green covers the nitty-gritty of making barrels, houses and other things wooden, but also reflects on their cultural meaning: Boxes, for example, “create security; they carry secrets.” Wood, he adds, figures greatly in matters of status and power, as witness thrones for the king and a stool for you, and the fact that “Captains of industry get real wood in their boardrooms and offices.” The author becomes cranky about mindless clear-cutting, and takes delight in our continuing fascination and need for the more “real” and “historical” qualities of wood even in this age of steel and synthetics. New materials are used to make gunstocks, toys, car floorboards and church pews, he notes—“But if all this new stuff is so great, why is so much of it molded and colored to look like wood?”
A bit much for some readers, but certain to please the legions of woodworking aficionados.