Aside from those times when I’m waiting at the bus station for what seems like hours and the winds are blowing so hard that an umbrella is useless, I love the rain. The sound of rain on rooftops. The scent of rain. The sight of rain striking windows or dripping from leaves. Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain is one of my favorite songs. All the different renditions of I Can’t Stand the Rain … just love it. Living in the northeastern part of the U.S.,I’ve rarely had to think about rain. There’s no real lack of it. I’ve just accepted it when it falls but Cynthia Barnett’s book, Rain, truly gave me a new appreciation for rain’s influence in shaping human society and culture both in the past and in the present.
Over the past two months, I’ve carried the book across two continents. Just under 300 pages in length, it’s not that long but the writing is dense and detailed. There’s no one narrative thread leading you someplace. Each chapter is like an umbrella and beneath that umbrella there’s a beautifully complicated web of stories all united by rain. One moment you’re reading about the origin and evolution of the Mackintosh raincoat by 18th century Scottish inventor Charles Macintosh and next you’re reading about Mary Anderson, a Birmingham, Alabama socialite who devised the first windshield wiper.
The Scent of Rain is a particularly fascinating chapter where she explains how rain “picks up odors from the molecules it meets. So its essence can come off as differently as all the flowers on all the continents — rose-obvious, barely there like a carnation, fleeting as a whiff of orange blossom as your car speeds past the grove. It depends on the type of the storm, the part of the world where it falls, and the subjective memory of the nose behind the whiff.” Barnett takes the reader on a journey from a village in Uttar Pradesh where fragrances have been distilled for generations, including the scents of rain, using compounds found in nature to the labs of super-smellers and scent scientists working to synthetically develop the rain scents found in perfumes, detergents, soaps and air fresheners.
In the chapter Writers on the Storm, readers learn how rain in all its guises has influenced musicians from Chopin to Morrissey and the works of directors Robert Capra, Akira Kurosawa and Woody Allen. The book is a treasure trove of interesting stories, and well-researched facts, about how people and nature interact in the presence of rain. If there is one suggestion I’d have for future editions it is to include maps. Barnett’s prose takes readers around the world and back again and maps illustrating that journey would be a boon.
Please note that I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. Additional links are below with information about the author and the book.