In 1995, Dava Sobel did what few other nonfiction writers have done — she wrote a best seller that wasn't a political kiss-and-tell, a...

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“The Planets”
by Dava Sobel
Viking, 270 pp., $24.95

In 1995, Dava Sobel did what few other nonfiction writers have done — she wrote a best seller that wasn’t a political kiss-and-tell, a self-help tome or a book about a famous or infamous person.

Her book, “Longitude,” focused on the then-nearly unknown John Harrison, a poor, uneducated clockmaker who solved one of the great mysteries of his time, accurately determining the system of longitude. Brilliantly weaving together science and history, Sobel launched a new genre of writing — microhistories, which focus on an everyday topic and explain why we should care about it. Subsequent examples, some good and others mostly OK, include books on cod, rats, foam, mauve, corpses and coal.

Four years after “Longitude,” Sobel followed up with the equally compelling and beautifully written “Galileo’s Daughter.” Using the surviving letters of the great scientist’s daughter as a framework, Sobel both humanized Galileo and fleshed out his life, his times and his critical scientific insights.

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What unites both books is Sobel’s focus on a single individual to tell her story. It is what gives her books direction and makes them so fascinating to read. The reader doesn’t feel that he is simply reading a string of facts held together by the author’s passion and knowledge of the subject. Many of the books that followed Sobel’s do provide fun facts to share or impress your friends with, but they do not engage one in the way that Sobel’s first two books do.

Coming up

Dava Sobel


The author of “The Planets” will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Seattle’s Town Hall as part of the Seattle Science Lecture Series; $5 (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

Unfortunately, Sobel’s new book, “The Planets,” does not live up to the standards set by her earlier work. No single person carries her story. The chapters are fact-filled, often charming, and well-written. But they read like stand-alone essays and sometimes even seem as if they are written by a different person.

Sobel organizes her book around our solar system, with separate chapters on the moon and sun, as well as all the planets except Uranus and Neptune, which share a chapter. In the chapter on Earth, she writes in present tense while covering almost 2,000 years of history. For the Mars chapter, she writes in the first person, as the planet. Most of the chapter on Uranus and Neptune is in the form of an imagined letter sent from Caroline Herschel, who helped her brother discover Uranus and was the first woman to discover a comet, to Maria Mitchell, the second woman to discover a comet.

In her introductory chapter, Sobel writes, “Even as the planets reveal themselves to scientific investigation, and repeat themselves across the universe, they retain the emotional weight of their long influence on our lives, and all that they have ever signified in Earth’s skies.” Perhaps it is not fair to criticize her, for as she correctly observes, planets have influenced science, mythology, music, poetry and history, and she has made them accessible and interesting.

Still, “The Planets” lacks the substance, intrigue and luminosity of her earlier work.