The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life is the very appropriate subtitle of this book. It’s definitely an epic: over 600 pages not including the bibliography, and with a fantastically vast scope – life the universe and everything.
Richard Cohen starts and finishes with personal experiences – sunrise in Fiji, sunset on the Ganges – and visited many other parts of the earth in order to research this topic and add a personal dimension. It’s a dense and detailed account of humanity’s developing scientific understanding of the sun, and of the ways in which different cultures have appropriated it into art, literature and religion. Cohen is possibly a little mad: how else could one person gather so much information, and present it in such an illuminating and clear way, whilst at the same time working full time in a publishing company, as he did?
The scientific aspects of this book are detailed and clear, covering the development of astronomy from its inception in the earliest agricultural communities, through the Copernican revolution to the twenty first century. It’s the philosophical and literary element that impressed me most though – a fascinating chapter on the sun in literature, with detailed reference to a range of writers, a chapter on Nietzsche and his influence on European culture that filled in gaps in my knowledge, and strange details of the way that different painters have used and thought about the sun and light.
The blurb quotes praise from Philip Pullman and Hilary Mantel; it’s well deserved. I enjoyed it very much, though by the end I was glad to move on to my next book. Perhaps this is one that shouldn’t be read in one go, as I did: rather it should be appreciated and digested slowly like a good meal.