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Book Review: Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology by David B. Williams

Review by Sid Perkins

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Cities may seem like the most artificial places on Earth, yet a close look at massive buildings can reveal troves of natural geological glory. In chapter after fascinating chapter of Stories in Stone, Williams, a geologist, deftly describes the mineralogy and history of some of the world’s most common building materials.

The porosity of marble often renders the stone useless for architecture in cold climates, for example, but many of the world’s most recognizable edifices — including the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal — are made of this luxurious material. Marble’s luminosity contrasts sharply with the chocolate color of brownstone, a sandstone derided by one critic as “the most hideous stone ever quarried.” Still, the material was fashionable: In 1880, 96 percent of Brooklyn stone structures were clad with it.

The age of the metamorphic gneiss quarried near Morton, Minn. — 3.5 billion years old — sets that stone apart from the geological youth of a conglomeration of shells and shell fragments called coquina. Some coquina deposits formed as recently as 110,000 years ago, just before the last ice age began.

Williams repeatedly shows that building stones hold more than just geological history: When hunks of 450-million-year-old granite were hauled to Boston in the mid-1820s to build a monument commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill, they arrived via the nation’s first commercial railroad.

Each chapter showcases a different stone. By describing how the stones formed and how they are used, this book reveals that natural and cultural history may lie no farther than the building next door.

Walker & Company, 2009, 261 p., $26.

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