cover image Dust


Joseph A. Amato. University of California Press, $35 (262pp) ISBN 978-0-520-21875-8

Until this century, dust and dirt--motes, mites, flea parts, skin flecks, pollen, garden dirt--were the smallest things most people thought about. They seemed omnipresent and ineradicable. Now we vacuum our kitchens, take showers, study quarks and give most dust the brush-off. Speaking up for the little things, Amato (The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus), professor of intellectual and cultural history at Minnesota's Southwest State University, offers a book-length meditation on the importance and symbolism of particulate matter in Europe and America. Anthropologist Mary Douglas; medieval historians like Lucien Febvre and Carlo Ginzburg; Renaissance sculptors, glassblowers and alchemists; microscope pioneers Leeuwenhoek and Hooke; and Dolly the cloned sheep all figure in Amato's speedy cultural history. Medieval French folk frequently deloused each other and called their thumbs ""louse-killers."" Early Victorian urbanization brought Britain filthy slums, along with reformers who tried to clean them up: later on, lightbulbs banished indoor soot. The Dust Bowl years of 1932-1938 darkened the skies of the American Midwest and caused more than half its residents to move away. Amato aims at a broad literary readership, not at historians of science; his synthetic, essayistic bent can make for glib and predictable generalizations (""Until the Industrial Revolution, humanity accepted the cyclical nature of life""). In our century, Amato writes, ""smallness and dust have diverged""; by now dust is neither our metaphor for littleness, nor our constant companion. Instead ""contemporary people are married to a new microcosm"" consisting of things (like viruses) too small to see. Readers who find such a thesis small potatoes may still find themselves enticed by Amato's accounts of the minuscule. 30 line illus. by Abigail Rorer. (Jan.)