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First, I will mention I'm a biologist with a broad background and broad interests. And, I was really looking forward to reading this book. I was aware since I was a boy that, for a long time, nobody knew what Conodonts were. I was also aware that folks had recently found fossils of these little tooth-like elements with their surrounding soft tissue preserved. So, I was anticipating an engaging history about their first discovery, about the shifting views of what they were, and about the ultimate discovery of the animal. It took me forever to get the book from interlibrary loan since it's pretty new, and I was chomping at the bit to read it. I was gravely dissapointed. Fortunately, I didn't buy it. I have been fighting through it for the past 3 days and have gotten to page 100. I am giving up.
The primary reason is not its abstruseness. Conodonts aren't for everyone, I know. One would think that would be the point of this book. To make Conodonts available for everyone. And, I think another writer could have done it. I am certain another writer could have done better. Heck, I think Simon Knell could have done it, if he had let someone outside the field review it first. And if he had listened to them.
This should be a general rule of thumb for readers of science: unless the book is in your field, only read the ones written by journalists. Do not bother with the ones written by scientists. For example, "The Wollemi Pine" by James Woodford covers a similar topic--the discovery of a living fossil conifer in Australia. It's a terrific, engaging read. I read it in one sitting. Written by a journalist.
Instead, Knell quickly loses us by focusing on the people who did the work, and not the story. However, this too is not his main crime. I would be fine with it if the people were interesting and well-developed. The problem is he does not tell us who these people are, he only names them. So, if you thought Knell would obscure the story in a haze of scientific names, you'd be wrong. Knell does a pretty good job of keeping the names of Conodonts to a mininum. Instead, the reader becomes quickly lost in a blizzard of anonymous, forgotten Conodont specialists from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Here is an example (p. 101):
"Rhodes could also draw upon two decades of precedent to demonstrate that Sinclair's solution had been tried and had failed. The fact that Schmidt's 1934 application of the rules had been ignored by subsequent workers seemed to prove the point, though Rhodes made no attempt to eleborate why it had not succeeded. There were also other precedents for Rhode's own methods, most notably Brazilian Frederico Wldermar Lange's 1947 paper on worm teeth."
I promise, I did not have to search with difficulty for a passage like this. The entire book (so far as I am willing to discover) is like this. This just so happens to be the passage that I read last, right before I threw the book down.
Who are these people? Who cares? As a museum historian, Knell dwells on these obscure authorities, but doesn't tell us anything else about them. He only names them, and then only briefly describes what they worked on. He doesn't develop them as characters, with the possible exception of Pander, who discovered Conodonts. By struggling, I could start to make out who was who in this very narrow field, but would then soon become swamped with more names of people who were once students of somebody. AND THESE PEOPLE ARE THE REAL SUBSTANCE OF THIS BOOK, AND WHAT THIS BOOK IS REALLY ABOUT.
It's like a military history, one of those horrible ones that are simply arcane lists of regiments and their commanders. But at least at some point you know there is going to be some bloodletting. And at least there is a known audience that loves those kind of histories. Unfortunately, my guess is there is only one person out there who will enjoy this book.
Indiana University Press shares some of the blame. They are marketing this book as one of those neat-o, gee-whiz tales of discovery, like Dava Sobel's "Longitude". It has a very nicely designed jacket and a title that lures you right in. But most readers will, like me, quickly realize that they have come to the wrong place for an engaging tale. I doubt that Knell himself had originally titled the book "The Great Fossil Enigma." Consider the title of one of his other books: "The Making of the Geological Society of London; the Culture of English Geology, 1815-1851." Sound interesting? Neither is his book about Conodonts.
I would have been spared 3 days of misery if they had given it an appropriate title ("A detailed history of the museum specalists who worked on Conodonts, from Pander to Faguliani, 1834-2010") and had it been printed in a more appropriate venue (The International Jounal of Conodont Museum Science, Vol. 32:1-413).
However, if you ARE a Conodont specialist, or a historian interested in Conodont specialists, you will know who these museum personages are, and you won't be confused and become lost amongst their names. You will remember the times you had with them, and you will know that they were giants in their field. You will love this book, because you are the one person who could. You are Simon Knell.