Stories in Stone

Humans have built with stone since — well, since the Stone Age. In the process we’ve gone from living lightly on the land to covering it up with our cities and works. But as David B. Williams shows in Stories in Stone, the edifices we cobble together don’t only erase or obscure; if seen aright, they tell the story of the earth as well. Fuming rivers of magma, the tides and currents of ancient shallow seas, the life and death of teeming generations of long-extinct creatures of the deep — these tales are legible in the bedding planes and patina of the building stones found in skyscrapers and old filling stations alike. Generating a broad palette of stones of varied colors and characteristics, those ancient conflicts and confluences made certain kinds of quarrying and building possible. Williams is an engaging writer, able to to mobilize both geology and the pathetic fallacy, as when he points out that the granite boulders used by the famously alienated poet Robinson Jeffers in building his aerie, Tor House, were themselves strangers of a kind, forged in isolation from the surrounding bedrock by the kind of seismic caprice that still rules the California crust. Pursuing the economic and architectural history of brownstone, revealing the tectonic violence that made the garish pinks and greens of Minnesota’s once-popular Morton stone, or explaining the tidal forces that made Carrara marble a building material both sublime and fragile, Williams coaxes us to remember the sentiment of Duke Senior in As You Like It, to listen more intently for “sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”