Thunder and Lightning

Thunder and Lightning

I know a book is worthy of consideration when I see the reviewers raising their game in an effort to describe it. Thunder and Lightning by Lauren Redniss falls squarely in to that bucket. A book that is clearly beguiling and difficult to categorize.

Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.”

And from The Guardian:

From the frozen tundras of Svalbard, through London pea-soupers, to wildfires crackling across the Australian outback, Lauren Redniss has produced an irresistibly original account of the weather in all its glory and danger.This is natural science writing by means of highly visual storytelling

It is the author Lauren Redniss’ third book, and she has followed the same format with them all, using a unique visual style that is all her own. She is described as a “graphic biographer” New York Times, graphic storyteller, and by herself as a “visual non-fiction” writer, with results that leave the reviewers gasping for superlatives:

there is an obscure kind of magic to Redniss’s results that’s reminiscent of all her subjects combined: showmanship, science, superstition, extreme forces beyond our ken.
The Telegraph

Since 2001 Redniss has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times, providing what she calls “Op-Art” that “combine oral history and on-location drawing to look at issues in the news in unexpected ways” and are well worth a look.

Rather than merely illustrating the text, the artwork lies at the heart of Thunder & Lightning, which is her third book. The “Sky” chapter, for example, is simply pages of boldly coloured vistas, no commentary necessary, while “Fog” plays wonderfully with shadow.
The Guardian

What fascinated me in learning about this book was how Redniss has set herself up as the guide rather than the expert, leading us through such a fundamental topic using a highly inventive medium. The thoroughness of research, both technical and through first-hand interviews and visits, is praised often:

Redniss makes no claims for herself as an expert. She is guide and student, pulling us irresistibly into her interests and connecting the seemingly disparate threads with a combination of authority and enthusiasm. She is, to use a contemporary word, a curator: arranging information with a distinct aesthetic and a point of view. In a way, maybe this book is very much of our time — one of those endeavors whose resistance to traditional labels can feel almost insolent. But at the same time, it puts one in mind of those 19th-century tracts — books like Celia Thaxter’s “Among the Isles of Shoals” or the travel writing of Isabella Bird — that dealt as much with passion as fact, with lore as documented history, and as a result managed to render landscapes intensely human.
New York Times

This “intensely human” angle is emphasized by Maria Popova (Brainpickings) also, that Redniss is the storyteller for the topic, allowing for a more personal and affecting approach:

In telling the stories of the people, places, and phenomena in the book, Redniss traveled to some of the world’s most remote regions and gathered first-hand impressions of Earth’s most extreme climates. From witchcraft trials to fog legends to conversations with such diverse weather-wranglers as climate scientists, politicians, and endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, she examines the weather as a pervasive phenomenon that permeates every aspect of human culture.

But this is not to say that the technical depth of knowledge is lacking:

It’s not all human interest, of course: There’s a good bit of straight science, much of it in the words of the various scientists and experts whom Redniss interviews. One comes away from “Thunder and Lightning” with a basic understanding of the workings of pressure systems, snow, “absolute desert.” It would, in fact, serve as an effective — if idiosyncratic — classroom text.
New York Times

Thunder and Lightning is a book very much of our time; a distillation of many available sources by a talented curator. However it is one that stands apart from the screens and the web and craves analog and physical attention from the reader. To pore over the art and fonts, and absorb the book holistically as a combination of inputs to our senses above just words on a page.

You can follow Lauren Redniss on Instagram and her website. She also did a great in-depth interview with Angela Ledgerwood in her Lit Up podcast.

Book details:
Weather Past, Present, Future
By Lauren Redniss
Illustrated. 261 pp. Random House.

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Image from Flickr under Creative Commons License