Annealing, in metallurgy and materials science, is a heat treatment that alters a material to increase its ductility and to make it more workable. It involves heating a material to above its critical temperature, maintaining a suitable temperature, and then cooling. Annealing can induce ductility, soften material, relieve internal stresses, refine the structure by making it homogeneous.
The term is an evocative verb for the actions and the results of the lives of the men Winchester tells in this history. He has written several interesting popular accounts of geology, geography, and history on topics as diverse as the explosion of the volcano Krakatoa, the cause and effects of the great San Francisco earthquake, and the compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary. Here he again combines areas of expertise but with a lean toward history and a love for the topic that is unfeigned and undisguised. He writes with the fervor of a young convert that a life-long saint would not have the energy to match.
He also uses his personal history to frame his account along the ancient Asian elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water suggested by his Japanese mother-in-law, and documented in his loving dedication to her memory. In Part I, wood is the framing element as Winchester describes the extension of the American experiment across the continent through the agency of explorers like Lewis and Clark. Earth, and the gold and other natural resources that could be mined from it, are the frame for the second part. Water tells the role of river and canal navigation in the annealing, giving way to the fire of steam powering the railroads that usurped the water, and then the internal combustion that nearly as quickly and completely displaced the trains.
Winchester concludes with a section on the metal wires that bound the annealed nation with telegram, telephone, radio/television, and ultimately the internet. Here he makes his only misstep when trying to argue for National Public Radio as a unifying force. It has in fact been at times politically divisive; Winchester's flaw is in only this instance confusing carrier with content. As Winchester continued to develop his argument that radio and then television first continued the unitary definition of a single American border and culture, his argument made sense even though I didn't agree with it. He concludes with the opposite effect that cable television's narrowcasting has had, and speculation on whether the world wide ubiquity of the world wide web was annealing a single country or culture over each continent or over one globe.
Winchester is a good and fun writer, and this new addition to his bookshelf should find a place on yours.
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