Light from Shadow: Books on Eclipses | The Reader’s Shelf

 On August 21, a wide swath of the United States will be treated to a total solar eclipse. The first in nearly 100 years to be visible coast-to-coast (with two more coming in 2024 and 2045), it will follow a diagonal path from Oregon to South Carolina. A host of books awaits those seeking to enrich the viewing experience by learning the lore of this rare spectacle.

Begin the journey with John Dvorak’s Mask of the Sun: The Science, History, and Forgotten Lore of Eclipses (Pegasus. Mar. 2017. ISBN 9781681773308. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681773858). It opens with a prolog about the 1925 total eclipse, focusing on a U.S. Navy photographer who climbed atop a dirigible to capture the event on film for the first time. Our ability to predict the precise timing of that instance was, as Dvorak points out, dependent on the bravery, intelligence, and curiosity of many individuals working across various cultures and periods. His well-researched book ranges around the globe and through vast tracts of history and prehistory to detail how that understanding evolved.

Also blending science, culture, and history is In the Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses by astronomer and anthropologist Anthony Aveni (Yale Univ. Apr. 2017. ISBN 9780300223194. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780300227574). Aveni has witnessed eight total solar eclipses in his lifetime, without losing any of his awe of them. However, his attention has shifted from the pure science to the ways in which humans—Greeks, Aztecs, and Chinese, among others—have received eclipses over the years. Captivated readers may learn a new word thanks to his account: umbra­phile, one who loves eclipses and often travels great distances to see them.

Count Oxford University particle physicist Frank Close as one of the tribe of umbra­philes. His Eclipse: Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon (Oxford Univ. May 2017. ISBN 9780198795490. $21.95; ebk. ISBN 9780192514875) includes not only clear explanations of the science of solar eclipses but also the poetic enthusiasm of a man who waited until midlife to experience his first one. That one took place in Cornwall, England, in 1999, where heavy clouds hampered the loss of his “eclipse virginity.” Fortunately, he was not dissuaded by the incident and trekked to the ends of the earth to witness more. “Even for a humanist,” he opines, “the vision was such that I thought, ‘If there is a heaven, this is what its entrance looks like.’ ”

In King Lear, Shakespeare wrote, “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.” Many shared that dark view, and John Banville hearkens back to the eclipse as an omen of death. In his novel Eclipse (Vintage. 2002. ISBN 9780375725296. pap. $15; ebk ISBN 9780307425706), Alexander Cleave moves back to his decrepit childhood home during an identity crisis, leaving behind his wife and distancing himself from his troubled child. As he wallows in directionless self-pity, he discovers that the man hired to look after the house has been living in it along with his teenage daughter, Lily. Oddly, Alex, the caretaker, and the girl begin to form a surrogate family. When tragedy strikes—just after the eclipse that Banville describes in gloomy terms—Alex is jolted out of his stupor and forced to confront his relationships.

The changes brought about by the eclipse in Wendy Mass’s Every Soul a Star (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 2009. ISBN 9780316002578. pap. $8.99; ebk ISBN 9780316040884) are much more positive. Three very different preteens come together at a campground where thousands of people have gathered to view the event. The book alternates among their perspectives as they deal with the stresses of growing up: school woes, changing friendships, and family issues. In an unusual twist, the kids end up doing some real astronomy, giving readers the opportunity to come away with a greater understanding of the science of the sky.

David Baron’s American Eclipse: A ­Nation’s Epic Race To Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright: Norton. Jun. 2017. ISBN 9781631490163. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631490170) is the true story of three individuals who traveled to the American West in July 1878—not for gold or land but to witness a total solar eclipse. One of them was Thomas Edison, but equally fascinating are the book’s lesser-known characters: Maria Mitchell, wanting to prove that women could be as adept at science as men, and James Craig Watson, who hoped to use the eclipse to descry a new planet. It’s a tale of ambition and discovery and how the darkening of the sun has always illuminated human character.

This column was contributed by Terzah Becker, Reference and Collection Development Librarian, Boulder Public Library, CO

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at

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  1. Douglas Lord says:

    Excellent selections!

  2. Martha Jones says:

    I need to share one of my favorite mysteries, Dark Nantucket Noon by Jane Langton, in her Homer Kelly series. The excitement of an eclipse masks a murder, but what always captured my interest was the role that geography played in its commission and solution and, of course, motives never change.

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