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Stories in Stone

David Schoonmaker

STORIES IN STONE: Travels Through Urban Geology. David B. Williams. Walker & Company, $26.

When life circumstances forced David B. Williams to give up the canyons of Utah for the streets of Boston, he turned to architecture for solace—in particular, to the granite that characterizes so many of the city’s structures, including the Bunker Hill Monument. A geologist by training but a natural history writer by profession, Williams wondered where the monument’s rock had been quarried, which took him to Quincy, Massachusetts, also known as the Granite City. That conceit—pursuing the provenance of a building material—becomes his jumping off point for stories of geology and history. With nine other rocks to serve as chapters, a book gets built.

I admire the cleverness of Williams’s device, but it would have failed were he not such a fine storyteller. No rock he picked was new to me, but nearly every tale was. It came as no surprise that St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos is built of coquina, but I had no idea it was so resistant to cannon fire—or that it had allowed the Spanish to withstand multiple English sieges. His explanation of why Carrara marble proved to be an unfortunate choice for cladding Standard Oil’s Chicago headquarters is unusually clear and yet lyrical. What else would you expect from a science observer who includes a visit to Robinson Jeffers’s (granite) Hawk Tower (right) in his book on rocks?—David Schoonmaker

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