Sunday book review – Earth by Chris Packham and Andrew Cohen

This is the book of the series – and I loved the 5-episode TV series. But the TV series moved around the world and moved us back in time through hundreds of millions of years and explored our home through a liberal use of moving computer generated images. All that moving – it’s what television does so well, but this is a book.

It’s a very good book – really, it is. It takes the story told on TV and bookifies it into five chapters with a bit of topping and tailing at either end.  The images are stunning – still images but beautiful. No one was around with a digital camera in the Permian so images chosen very cleverly to illustrate a distant past are used. And as one turns the pages sometimes the relevance of what ones sees is obvious, at other times one is wondering whether this is a picture of a very small thing or a very big one – and I liked that.

Although there are lots of images, this is not a picture book – the text is very strong.  There are helpful maps, diagrams, timelines and graphs and the words are for grown-ups.

There are bits of the series, most particularly the last episode, where I can remember the action very clearly. They are all where Chris Packham spoke in a way which had a real impact on me, and I guess on many others. They were in the plaza in Merida, Mexico, talking about bipedalism, in the cave in the French Pyrenees looking at ancient art and at the end on a rooftop in Mexico City. The first of these doesn’t feature as a scene in the book (but of course bipedalism is in there), and the cave art is featured but has far less impact than the commentary on film, and that is true of the final words of the film and the book. The moving image is the more moving when it is a piece to camera of an individual talking with clarity and feeling.

The strength of the book is that one can go back to things time and again to check what happened and whether one understands it – on TV one is swept along and can’t pause. Sometimes I was a bit lost in the TV episodes, I have to admit. There are strengths and weaknesses in each approach. If you want to internalise the complex history of our planet rather than being swept along by beautiful images then, because it is so well done, the book is a must. In this case, the TV series and the book of the series really do complement each other.

The cover? Any cover of a view of earth from space has a lot going for it. But this one appears to have a couple of satellites at c1 o’clock and 2 o’clock – which seems odd. But I’ll give it 8/10 anyway. After all, it’s an image of home.

Earth: over 4 billion years in the making by Chris Packham and Andrew Cohen is published by William Collins.


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