Book Review: The Planets

Book cover for the planets has a green background with a symbolic depiction of the solar system -- or more specifically the orbits of the planets within it and a sneak peek at a planet with rings, presumably Saturn in the middle.

The Planets 
By Dava Sobel
Viking, 2005
Format: Audiobook

After reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, I was hoping for a science-driven look at the planets in our solar system. I wanted to be able to close Sobel’s book and amaze my husband with my familiarity with the composition of Venus’ atmosphere and Pluto’s ice, much like I’d stunned him by remembering what Brownian motion was when it came up in conversation last week. (Thanks, Bryson!)

But what Sobel actually does is blend a smattering of astronomy with a bit of astrology, some poetry, and of course a dash of mythology to serve up an intimate look at how the planets have shaped popular culture over the ages (and by extension Sobel’s own experiences). Also a fascinating subject, but not quite the one I expected going in.

What I thought about it

Without question, taking the planets one at a time (including Pluto, which was just beginning to maybe not be a planet any more when Sobel wrote this book) and assessing their impact on the stories we tell ourselves about the universe we live in makes for fascinating reading.

Sobel’s writing at times is simply amazing. More than once I found myself stopping the audiobook so I could savor the amazing concept that had just spilled into my ears. The first time this happened was early in the book, when Sobel was speculating about what will happen when the Sun finally dies after a few billion more years.

Unfortunately I listened to the audiobook, so I can’t capture the exact words for you, but basically Sobel talks about how eventually the sun will expand and its heat intensify until it leaves the Earth a charred husk, incinerating the ground where the son of God had once walked.

It was a completely unexpected turn of phrase and one that ensured I would listen all the way to the end.

Did Sobel answer all of my questions about the planets?

Absolutely not. Instead, she sparked more.

Of course for me, that’s pretty much the definition of a successful book.

Who might enjoy this book

  • People looking for an entertaining and accessible survey of how the planets in our solar system have shaped mythology, history, art, and poetry over the ages. 

And now it’s your turn. What are you reading this week?

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