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Great idea but often frustrating read
on October 1, 2011
This is a great idea of a book marred by a flawed execution. As a fellow exiled Bostonian with a long history with the Charles River, I was very excited to see this book. I love the book's thesis that one can find find value and natural beauty in environments far from the pristine grandeur of a Yosemite or even a Walden. There are some great stories here about the history of people's relationship with the river, about the changes in the river's surroundings in the last couple of decades, and about the bird life to be found in the river.
On the other hand, the promise of the book is somewhat buried by its problems. For each paragraph describing the river, Gessner could have written ten pages instead. I would like to know more about how the Charles got so polluted and how it got cleaned up. Gessner spent hours hanging out with Dan Driscoll, the state environmental worker who apparently instigated a major change in the way the river is treated, yet the book only gives glimpses of the battles Driscoll fought. The river itself, and how it fits into the natural and man-made environment of Boston and vicinity, could have gotten much more attention in the book. Instead, the river appears to be a backdrop for Gessner's musings on the environmental movement. These musings were not very clear or very original; he criticises environmentalists for being dull scolds but then becomes somewhat of a scold himself as he exhorts the masses to get out doors and experience nature more. He doesn't marshall logical arguments or factual evidence when he complains about Shellenberger and Nordhous or other, unnamed environmentalists; he just states his opinions.
While reading the book I visited Boston and discovered a part of the river I had never seen. My uncle lives near the Needham border where a wall of trees press close to either side of the black water. The river, itself no wider than a road, slides under Chestnut Street and on to its gleaming destination near Back Bay, MIT, and the Museum of Science. It was a thrill receiving a glimpse of the hidden life of the Charles. The book also gives such thrills, but could have given them in far greater measure.