Book Review: Rust
by Jonathan Waldman
Simon & Schuster, 2015
It’s an easily imitated (and easily parodied) gimmick of popular science writing to pick an unlikely or grotesque subject and mine it to its very foundations in something like 250 pages. Mary Roach is the undisputed queen of this odd sub-genre of grit-lit, with books like Stiff (about corpses) and Gulp (about the alimentary canal) aimed squarely at the juncture of the reader’s ignorance and tolerance.
This is clearly science writer Jonathan Waldman’s aim as well in his uproariously winning debut Rust: The Longest War (with its Mary Roach cover-blurb). His subject is constant onslaught of rust all over the world; his book is an odyssey of oxidation, and he knows perfectly well that his subject is both off-putting and, at least in the popular imagination, boring. He knows he’s written a book that will, to the cursory browser at the Barnes & Noble New Release table, have all the immediate allure of something called Watching Paint Dry, and he compensates in two main ways. First, he stresses that the war against rust is both huge and, who’d have thought it, dramatic: “Rust is costlier than all other natural disasters combined,” he tells us right at the outset “amounting to 3 percent of GDP, or $437 billion annually, more than the GDP of Sweden.”
And second, he wraps his subject in the immensely readable prose that is the hallmark of all great popular science-writing:
Almost every metal is vulnerable to corrosion. Rust inflicts visible scars, turning calcium white, copper green, scandium pink, strontium yellow, terbium maroon, thallium blue, and thorium gray, then black, It’s turned Mars red. On Earth, it gives the Grand Canyon, bricks, Mexican tile, and blood their hue. A ruthless enemy, it never sleeps, remind us constantly that metals, just like us, are mortal.
“It’s why cast-iron skillets are oiled,” he points out, “why copper wires are sheathed, why lightbulbs contain no oxygen, why spark plug electrodes are made of metals such as yttrium, iridium, platinum, or palladium, and why serious dental work costs an arm and a leg.”
In the fairly standard template for this kind of thing, he shifts his narrative from scientific exposition – in which he teaches his readers literally everything it would occur to them to wonder about rust – to personal anecdotes, in which he shares the adventures he’s had all over the world while researching the losing war against rust and spending time with its front-line warriors (all of whom are, unsurprisingly, quite insane). “You know, if you live in a city, in an apartment, you never deal with rust,” one rust-warrior tells him, “If you live in the country, or on a farm, or work on cars, or live in the rust belt like I do, or on the coasts …”
The list underscores the universal nature of this phenomenon on which Waldman has now at a stroke become the world’s most enthusiastic expert, and his book is a perfect blend of informative and entertaining. And throughout, Waldman himself is the most likable of guides (despite the fact that at one point, when discussing the dubious sex appeal of Star Trek, he writers the heretical line “One can only contemplate a body in a Starfleet uniform for so long”), a man whose insatiable curiosity can elicit the best quotes from the experts he interviews (even if that same curiosity got him expelled from Can School for asking too many questions about the “suicidal tendencies” of aluminum cans). Before encountering this book, you will not have given three thoughts in your life to rust, and after reading it, you’ll go three days thinking of nothing else. In grit-lit circles, that’s a triumph.