Acquainted with the Night: Excursions Through the World After Dark by Christopher Dewdney (HarperCollins), 322 pages, $21.95 paper. Rating:
Christopher Dewdney has crafted an exquisite celebration of the sublime period of time the Earth spends every day turned away from the sun.
Acquainted With The Night is arranged as a chronological tour through a fictional night, each chapter delving an hour deeper into the darkness, touching on a different theme.
Dewdney's questions drive his research: When was the first night? How big is night? What do people do at night? He answers them with the curiosity of a child, dredging up mythological tidbits and scouring the world of science for fascinating investigations into nocturnal phenomena.
He begins with the etymology of the English word "night" and how this history intertwines with cross-cultural mythologies and religious prescriptions. He investigates children's literature for social taboos against the night, and even spends a night at St. Michaels Hospital in a sleep clinic to figure out what happens to our bodies when we sleep and dream.
He talks to people who work through the night, like cops, astronomers and sex workers, all with different ideas about what the night means to them as a place of work.
His survey of stargazing is technically very accurate yet never relies on arcane language or boring studies. The poet in Dewdney emerges when he ponders the vastness of the universe; he compares the cold vacuum of the night sky to a crystal jelly in which planets and stars and galaxy clusters are suspended like insects in amber.
One of the strongest chapters takes the reader on a mind-blowing survey of the natural world at night, from bioluminescent sea creatures to vampire parrots (!) to fireflies blinking in unison.
It's rare to find a book that oscillates so seamlessly between poetry and science. Dewdney's survey is a supremely original work.