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Mirror, Mirror


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About the Author

Mark Pendergrast was born in Atlanta and is a graduate of Harvard University. A business journalist, he has published articles and reviews in a number of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, the Sunday Times (London), and Financial Analyst.


After exploring the history of coffee in Uncommon Grounds, Pendergrast now takes up another common object-the mirror. How it evolved from the polished ornaments of ancient sun worshippers and an essential of 17th-century palace decor to the modern glass in everyman's bathroom is only one theme in this chronological survey. Throughout its history, Pendergrast shows, the mirror has symbolized vanity, self-examination and the limits of human understanding. He identifies the mirror as a favorite metaphor in Elizabethan literature; he also traces mirrors back to Greek myths and forward to Lewis Carroll's classic Through the Looking-Glass. A third theme is the magic mirror, into which conjurers have peered to communicate with the other world. Though condemned by the Church, this practice, called scrying, enjoyed a revival during the Renaissance and again during the Victorian spiritualism craze, while vaudevillian "smoke and mirror" shows flourished and toys for creating optical illusions provided home entertainment. Shifting to mirrors in science, Pendergrast describes optics from early philosophers' theories of vision through quantum physicists' discovery of light's dual particle-wave nature. Though informative, long technical sections about reflecting telescopes and other subjects will frustrate the reader lured by the book's suggestive subtitle. In the conclusion, Pendergrast speculates on the ability to recognize oneself in the mirror as evidence of a self-awareness unique to higher animals. If Pendergrast had shown more self-awareness as a writer, however, he might have resisted the urge to impose a chronological framework and to include seemingly every fact from his notes. The result would have been a more coherent and thoughtful book. (July 1) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Pendergrast (Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World) traces the significance of reflective surfaces from ancient cultures to contemporary times. He provides a cursory treatment of the religious, literary, and artistic uses of mirrors throughout history, instead focusing on the scientific and technological achievements resulting from the applications of mirrors. As Pendergrast reveals, mirrors played a significant role in the advancements of such scientific fields as optics, astronomy, and the study of light. He explains at length that telescopes were only possible through refinements in mirror technology. This well-researched treatise on mirrors and science would have made for an interesting book in its own right; the less-developed chapters on mirror symbolism in the humanities and pop culture would have been more true to the book's subtitle if developed as a separate study. More comprehensive studies of the mirror and its sociological impact may be found in Benjamin Goldberg's The Mirror and Man or Sabine Melchior-Bonnet's The Mirror: A History. Overall, however, Pendergrast's book is a worthwhile addition to general collections in large public or academic libraries.-Donna Marie Smith, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., FL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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