Get our free newsletter
One word explains how books like Mirror Mirror happen: “longitude.” (There’s another—”greed”—but let’s set that aside for a moment.) Dava Sobel’s wowza 1995 best seller by that name, about the loner who discovered how to measure longitude and transformed our world, caught publishers with their pants down, and that’s not going to happen again until the next time it does. So now bookstore clerks have to wear hernia belts to shelve all the new histories of Things We Never Knew We Took for Granted (such as compasses, soft drinks, and masturbation), all with grandiose subtitles like How Linoleum Transformed Our World.
As author Mark Pendergrast admits in Mirror Mirror, he chose the book’s subject almost at random: While lunching with his editor after his last book (Uncommon Grounds, subtitled The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World), he glanced at one of the restaurant’s mirrors and said what the hell. Well, the result is hell, a work so stupefyingly mishandled that you wonder if Pendergrast’s editor went into a coma after that lunch. They simply don’t put out “history” like this anymore—a mound of undigested fact and regurgitated research, lightly patted into the shape of a book. Getting through more than five pages of Pendergrast’s prose requires the momentum and horsepower of a snowplow.
Mirror Mirror also wastes an opportunity, because mirrors turn out to be richly interesting—physically, historically, and culturally. As a very determined reader will eventually glean, reflections in polished surfaces have been instrumental in everything from dentistry to weaponry, telescopes to telemarketing. Common globally by 1000 BCE, mirrors quickly made their way into religion, literature, fashion, science, and art.
This ubiquity, of course, provides Pendergrast with a plethora of odd or downright vaudevillean factlets to strew about, such as how Descartes made a camera obscura out of an eyeball in order to understand human perception, or that Elizabeth I used a distorting glass to hide her wrinkles, or that Nostradamus was a scryer—someone who tells futures by looking into mirrors or crystals. Then there’s George Stratton, an American who in the late 1890s experimented on himself by wearing for days at a time a mirrored contraption in which the world appeared upside down, sideways, or otherwise distorted. (After periods of dizzy spells, he adjusted nicely, proving that perception is both constructed and adaptable.)
Where there are humans, there’s also sex, of course—and it didn’t take people long to figure out that watching their own lovemaking in a mirror might be fun. Seneca wrote with disgust (and at salacious length) about one Hostius Quadra, a wealthy Roman who mirrored his bedroom so he could observe his own threesomes. Nowadays, grant money has bought us the discovery that dolphins will copulate to exhaustion if they can do it in front of a mirror. Pendergrast also reports an ancient Jewish superstition that, if you write the name of your beloved three times on the back of a small mirror before holding it up in front of two copulating dogs and getting your beloved to glance at it, you just might get lucky. I’m waiting for that ad to show up in my e-mail.
Indeed, the staggering weight of this book’s evidence might convince you that mirrors have replaced carbon as the basis for all life. We find out that Plato and Aristotle sparred over them; that Brunelleschi, van Eyk, da Vinci, Dürer, Holbein the Younger, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Velásquez all relied on them to paint; that everyone from the Chinese to the Aztecs used them to symbolize divinity; and that literary works such as Paradiso, Richard II, Hamlet, and, of course, Through the Looking Glass feature them prominently—not to mention that their scientific applications include streetlights, searchlights, lighthouses, cameras, and lasers.
Unfortunately, Pendergrast does mention, ad nauseam. The foregoing lists give you a taste of his amateur-historian, never-20-examples-when-30-are-at-hand approach. Aside from one amusing story about how the French stole a few of Venice’s mirror-makers (who were all confined to an island for life to keep their secrets proprietary), Mirror Mirror reads like an encyclopedia with one entry, slogging between subtopics with cement-booted paragraphs made up entirely of book titles and literary citations.
And if you’re looking for insight into why humans are fascinated with reflected images, you won’t get it from Pendergrast. He’s much more comfortable with good old-fashioned scientific progress than he is with psychology or cultural studies, giving four long chapters to telescopes and a brief and impatient one to vanity and fashion. Mirrors for astronomy are heroic; mirrors in department stores receive the disapproving cluck of his tongue as the source of mass superficiality.
Truth be told, though, Pendergrast ain’t so good at explaining science, either. How rainbows work, how light interacts with water, how mirrors reflect back our image in reverse or became mass-produced—you’ll be scratching your head raw on these and many other matters by the end of Mirror Mirror. An apparently huge travel budget may have given the author too much material; Pendergrast doesn’t have the writing or synthesizing chops to land this 747. The book’s ugly, low-resolution figures reinforce the impression of a hasty and miscast effort best turned to for its index.
An academic friend who does cultural studies of animals recently passed on some bad news: A big-time literary agent had approached her. “He wanted me to do a book based on my work that would be popular,” she said. “So I sent him a proposal with most of the topics I’ve written on—zoos, animals in literature, animals in politics, animals in spiritual worship. And he sent it back to me and said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I want a book on one animal.’”
That isn’t how obsessive and lively histories such as Seabiscuit or Longitude were written, but it is how publishing works. Mirror Mirror is like a much-mirrored image of those originals: a dim, indistinct, and thoroughly degraded imitation, a book about reflection that manages to be nearly reflection-free. CP