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Joe Sherman, 'Gasp! The swift and terrible beauty of Air'
Using a single entity or idea to tell a wider story has been a saleable strategy for popular historians since Longitude became such a resounding hit. People expecting something similar in Joe Sherman’s Gasp: the Swift and Terrible Beauty of the Air may well start out by being a little disappointed. Sherman is an excellent writer, and the book’s first half carries an impressive array of facts and anecdotes. However, their assembly is as formless as their subject. In this exploration of our dependency on this much-damaged basis for life, he begins neatly with his son’s first breath but then meanders through wide and, admittedly interesting, territories of science, history and mythology, never quite finding the narrative drive he needs to make us truly care about any of it. In the final and largest section of the book, however, Sherman snaps into impressive focus. Having made his rather half-hearted attempt to communicate awe at the complexity of the atmosphere, he makes a two-fisted job of rousing anger over its degradation. He moves swiftly from the smoke of the first fire to the soot-choked cities of the Nineteenth century, and details the various Clean Air Acts passed and then reversed by successive US governments. Sherman writes with lucid outrage, especially when describing the ceaselessly frustrating struggle of environmental advocates against those concerned with profiting from pollution. The book’s true climax is its penultimate chapter. “The Black Triangle” is a stunning piece of crusading journalism, telling the tale of a rural area of northern Czechoslovakia rendered ugly by industrialisation and virtually uninhabitable by post-communist corruption and compromise. Drawing on moving, personally gathered testimonies of residents, Sherman’s account of lives blighted by atmospheric pollution is devastating. It’s a shame that he has to conclude as he begins, with a rambling and slightly irrelevant account of a visit to a Buddhist “breath centre”. It’s also a shame that the book is being sold as a piece of popular science, when that is in fact its weakest aspect. Hopefully this strategy may draw people in to the book’s fine and passionate heart, alerting them in the process to the continuous assault on the air they breathe.