On Saturday I was checking out books at the library of the university where I work, when a man stepped in line behind me. He was 60-ish, wore a garish Hawaiian shirt and resembled Ford Madox Ford. We nodded, I collected my books and left. Twenty minutes later, I was browsing in a bookstore near campus when the same guy showed up, two shelves away. We laughed at the minor coincidence, said hello and returned to browsing. A few minutes later, we met again at the table of recently published books. He explained that his wife had graduated in 1970 from the school where I work, and that she had taken an English class that required her to read four books a week. That obligation had turned into a pleasure, and she has ever since read four books each week. His job is to track down appropriate titles – thus, libraries and bookstores. He said nothing of his own reading habits, but handed me a volume from the stacks in front of us and said, “This is a beautiful book. Wonderful. I got it from the library, then bought us a copy.”
I’m not an impulsive buyer, even of books, but I listen to a man (even one wearing a Hawaiian shirt) who reads a book borrowed from the library, then invests in his own copy. That’s a man who knows his pleasures and is willing to shell out a little cash to gratify them. Based on appearance alone, before I cracked the covers, The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds is an attractive object. The cover art, by Paul Catherall, is as colorful as a memorable sunset, yet muted. The book, published by Perigee Books, is small but has a pleasant heft. The typeface is clean and pleasing. The book is amply illustrated with black and white photographs, drawings and graphs, and the author is named Gavin Pretor-Pinney. Yes, he is English.
In 2004, Pretor-Pinney, described in the author’s bio as a “former science nerd,” founded The Cloud Appreciation Society, which he tells us has 1,800 members in 25 countries. Visit their web site to see hundreds of photographs of clouds, this time in color. Pretor-Pinney is dotty and obsessive and, I think, quintessentially English in his enthusiasm. His writing ability is middling but his enthusiasm – his book amounts to a cloud taxonomy – is admirable. He is not a professional meteorologist but an old-fashioned amateur, riding his hobbyhorse out of love. His Introduction begins:
“I’ve always loved looking at clouds. Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty.”
Of course, much of their beauty lies in their ephemeral nature. When I think of clouds in literature, I think first of Aristophanes, then of Hamlet, the scene where the insufferable prince toys with Polonious, likening the shape of a cloud to a camel, a weasel and a whale. “Very like a whale,” says Polonious, supplying Lord Byron with a poem, who in turn supplied Ogden Nash with a poem. Pretor-Pinney cites Aristophanes and quotes the appropriate lines from Hamlet, but makes no mention of Byron or Nash. His literary citations in general are thin, and he uses Shelley’s “The Cloud” as an epigraph. He doesn’t mention Wordsworth, Dickinson, Whitman or Wallace Stevens, but partially redeems himself with citations from Milton, Keats, Ruskin, Emerson and Thoreau. The author of Walden he describes as “a big fan of clouds in general” and proves it by quoting Thoreau’s journal for Sept. 7, 1851:
“The most beautiful thing in nature is the sun reflected from a tearful cloud.”