If you had told me that I would pick up and read The Alchemy of Air, a book about….well, basically about chemistry and fertilizer, I would have laughed at you. Not only did I read it, but it was the best book I read in the last year.
I’ve belonged to the same book group for about 40 years. We have increasingly been reading more challenging, non-fiction books. Sometimes I long for the old days when we could read books like Bridges of Madison County (yes, groan….we did!) or a Harry Potter book. On the other hand, I am reading books I never would have attempted otherwise. Last month we read Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick. This swash-buckling tale about Charles Wilkes, the volatile leader of a highly successful, but disastrous exploring expedition in the early 1800’s was a page turner.
But this month’s book was even better. The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager, is about two German men, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, both brilliant–but flawed. In the words of the author, “This is the story of two men who invented a way to turn air into bread, built factories the size of small cities, made enormous fortunes, helped engineer the deaths of millions of people, and saved the lives of billions more.” Both men received Nobel prizes for their work. Haber, incidentally, was Jewish, and that fact played a lot into his drive for success in a country that, even before the rise of the Nazis, made it difficult to succeed if you were Jewish. His compromises ultimately put him into some unfortunate situations.
Much of the book dealt with early 1900’s German history, but some of my favorite chapters centered on the early and frantic guano trade along the South American coast. Yes, the book is about fertilizer! It’s a story of pulling fertilizer out of the air, the stuff of fairy tales. But fairy tales end happily and this one was hardly that. The Haber-Bosch process did produce fertilizer for crops (today it’s used all over the world), but it also produced gunpowder and high explosives, poisonous gas, and a problem we all face today–nitrogen pollution. The author also views the obesity pandemic today as a result of this process. He points out that there is no shortage of food, but there is a problem (due to wars and natural disasters) of getting it to the people who need it.
I appreciated the short chapters and the readability for a non-scientific person like myself. I found it hard to put the book down. This was a history I did not know–and the others in my book group admitted the same thing. I am even looking at my vegetable garden and the plants in my yard in a different way.