while searching for a gift for my step-father this past holiday season I bumped into a book by sam kean called The Violinist’s Thumb.  I was looking for a different book, but something about kean’s book jumped out at me and I pulled it from the shelf to look at the cover.

I still think I can judge a book by its cover, one of publishing’s great (and most likely, terribly frustrating) hurdles.  many images, designs, and typefaces will stop me from opening a book, as will certain titles.  some might say I’m too quick to judge, but I will argue that as one who’s been choosing books to read for over 45 years, I’ve come to understand the messages sent by those tens of thousands of covers to which I’ve been exposed.  sometimes a book’s cover tells you exactly what you need to know.

the violinist’s thumb has a fabulously designed cover:  the background is a rich red image of a weighty, velvet stage curtain, and an artistically stylized violin is smack in the middle of the cover.  the typeface is reminiscent of victorian apothecaries, and the subtitle pulled me right in:  and other tales of love, war, and genius, as written by our genetic code.

now this might not appeal to you, but it was exactly the kind of salesmanship that hooks me.  it had a dramatic flair, it incorporated music (which flows in my dna), and it promised entertaining stories that would educate and expand awarenesses.  my kind of book!  and, hopefully, as I was buying it as a gift, it would be my step-father’s kind of book as well.

on the back cover was the statement that sam kean is the author of a previously published book, the disappearing spoon.  okay, that’s another darn good title, and I decided I needed to read that one first before digging into the thumb book.  I started reading it yesterday, and found my imagination and soul captured within the first three pages.   how can you not fall in love with a book whose author writes a sentence like this:

In fact, mercury is one of the more cultish elements: its atoms want to keep company only with other mercury atoms, and they minimize contact with the outside world by crouching into a sphere.  

yes, the disappearing spoon is a book about the periodic table, with a sub-title “and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements.  how can you resist?  as with david brooks’ the social animal, and bill bryson’s the history of nearly everything, kean’s book conveys information with humor and delight: the reader can easily tell that the author is enraptured with his subject matter.  who better to learn from?  who needs a dry lecture when a teacher full of energy and excitement is eager to impart his knowledge?

I expect to learn a great deal from reading sam kean’s two books.  not sure how much I will retain, but I’m certain I’ll be entertained along the way, which is a terrific way to learn anything, and a terrific way to while away hours on the couch while winter wages its war outside my window.