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Book Review 239: Mirror, Mirror

July 8, 2012 - Harry Eagar
MIRROR, MIRROR: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection, by Mark Pendergast.404 pages, illustrated. Basic, $27.50

As Mark Pendergast mentions casually along the way, everything that isn't a black hole is reflective. But by mirror he means surfaces that send back a reasonable facsimile of what is in front of them – although he never tries to define mirror.

This is not as trivial as it might at first appear. Mirrors have puzzled people enough that close examination has revealed un suspected properties of light.

Long before that point, though, mirrors had a vaguer purpose, though a profound one to those who used them: They were signifiers of divinity. This was a widespread conception, known from Mexico to China.

Mirrors as aids to vanity became big business in Greece and Rome. “Mirrors have always been ambivalent servants,” Pendergast writes.

Nowhere more so than in the claim that there are no blind schizophrenics. This is a curious claim, its implications dampened somewhat by the imprecision of the term schizophrenia. Still, as far as it goes, it may tell us something, as does the reaction of people (Pendergast included) to themselves in funhouse mirrors.

But the bulk of the book is spent with mirrors as avenues and assistants in scientific research. The obvious focus is on telescopes, but while we find things with telescopes, it was a split mirror that made it possible for Michelson and Morley to fail to find evidence of the ether.

Pendergast examines just about every aspect of mirrors, from the invention of float glass to the elaboration of kaleidoscopes, never neglecting to salt his reports with amusing, tragic or ironic anecdotes. Altogether, a lively survey of mirrors, leaving out only the trick that 20th century children learned by holding up a pack of Camels to a mirror and observing the odd behavior of the words CHOICE QUALITY.


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