Popular science books are no doubt difficult to write. To encapsulate the “pure” science behind the chosen subject in an accessible, easy-to-read manner takes both scientific expertise and skill as a writer. To “soften the science,” many authors, like Sagan and Gould, strive to inject a little humanity and “self” into their popular science writings. Sagan’s classic, Cosmos, is lauded for both its picture of the universe and for the picture of Sagan the man and scientist that emerges. However, it is always the science that is first in these books, no matter how much of the author winds up in the narrative.
Unfortunately, that is not the case with Charles Pellegrino’s Ghosts of Vesuvius. Dr. Pellegrino is always front and center. He is the main character, hero, disingenuous disciple, swashbuckling scientist – all rolled into one. Ghosts of Vesuvius would be a much better book if Dr. Pellegrino simply left himself out and focused on the science. After all, the tale of what happened to Pompeii and Herculaneum after Mt. Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79 is fascinating and needs little embellishment.
The bare bones of the event are simply that in a single August day nearly two thousand years ago, the bustling Roman communities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried under nearly sixty-five feet of ashes and soot from the exploding Mt. Vesuvius. These were not small villages with a few hundred inhabitants, but thriving cities with thousands of residents, most of whom died that day. Pellegrino does a good job of relating the actual events of the day, and how the eruption proceeded in each town. He details the raining soot and pumice, the surge clouds, the blackening skies, and the last few moments of each town, sifting through the volcanic debris for a timetable of destruction: “The beginning of the end is marked by a transition from white pumice to gray pumice, deposited about waist-high from the original surface”(193).
Ghosts of Vesuvius does much to capture a bit of the lives and humanity of the inhabitants of the doomed towns as well. Pellegrino visits many of the excavated ruins and describes “The House of the Gem” and “The House of the Christians” among others. Shrines, panels, and last meals are painted for the reader in vivid color. The towns are fleshed out from mere ghost towns to living, breathing, pulsing locales.
Thus far, it sounds like Pellegrino has written an exceptional book. To a certain extent, he has. But did I mention that the actual text concerning Vesuvius does not start until almost page 200? To reach the heart of the book, one has to plow through a “walk through time” covering the history of the earth and universe. Interesting stuff, but nothing that a high school senior doesn’t know and not very relevant to the tale of what happened on a certain August day in A.D. 79. And prior to the look through history, the reader has to slog through an almost incomprehensible semi-poetic mixing of Pellegrino’s thoughts on volcanoes and science, interspersed with biblical quotations and odd ramblings: “Multi-cellularity was there at the beginning, even before cells themselves existed….(To you, a thousand years are but a single days. Before the mountains were born, before the earth and the world came to birth)” (18). A strange mix from a secular man of science and at odds with the rest of the book.
But, by far, Pellegrino’s greatest offense in Ghosts of Vesuvius is the constant interjection of self into the narrative. Again and again, he pops up in pointless asides that shed no light on the meat of the book. There he is, noting that “the scientist-philosopher Arthur C. Clarke agreed with me… that any sufficiently advanced future civilization would not accept a universe that played out at random only once” (123). Wonderful, but where is Vesuvius in that statement? Or: “Stephen Hawking added his opinion: I like Charlie Pellegrino’s …. theory of quantum spirituality” (124). And there Pellegrino is again, describing irrelevant past work on the Titanic, or meeting another famous scientist… again and again, Pellegrino intrudes in this book, to the point where the reader has to wonder, is this book really about the last days of the doomed towns? Or about Pellegrino with a little Pompeii thrown in?
Is Ghosts of Vesuvius worth reading? It depends. If you are willing to sift through the dross of random history factoids, September 11th remembrances, and Pellegrino pop-ins, there is an interesting tale buried between the covers. However, for readers with less patience, I suggest finding one of the many well-written books that deal with the last days of Pompeii and Herculaneum in a clear and straightforward manner. There are many science writers publishing today who can accomplish what Pellegrino apparently could not: reining in their “selves” long enough to write an informative book.