I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below leads to the website of the independent book seller nearest you. Read on…

Is one allowed to begin a book review with a quote from another book review? A line from the New York Times is printed right on the cover of River of Shadows: “Brilliant … Never less than deeply intelligent, and often very close to inspired”.

“River of Shadows” traces the life and spasmodic career of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, probably most famous for the groundbreaking photographic motion studies of the 1870s. The holy grail of Victorian darkroom alchemists was, at least photographically speaking, to successfully freeze motion onto a chemical plate. Sponsored by wealthy equestrian (and railroad robber baron) Leland Stanford, Muybridge proved decisively that a racing horse’s feet do simultaneously leave the ground — and put the lie to centuries of painterly attempts at realism.

But this ambitious work is far, far more than a simple biography. It’s true subject is, in the stock phrase of the day, the “annihilation of time and space” — the technological transformation of not only the American west, but of the world. San Franciscan Rebecca Solnit paints a vivid, poetic, and meticulously detailed picture of the ferment and excitement of the Victorian technological revolution… and Muybridge’s part in precipitating the inexorable advance of our highly accelerated and regulated modern way of life.

The odd (and possibly brain-injured) life of Eadweard Muybridge provides the main thread of the work, but Solnit does not miss an opportunity to follow other fascinating fragments of the Western drama: Charles Darwin, Emperor Norton, John Muir, Yosemite, Thomas Edison, the “Ghost Dance” of the Modoc War, even George Takei… you begin to flip the pages more and more quickly, wondering what unexpectedly compelling intersection will be uncovered on the next. The photographer’s experiments with image, time and speed lead to him personal glory, heartbreak, and even murder on the way to becoming the godfather of those two most influential “California” institutions: Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Filled with striking and poetic images, this book manages to combine literary aspirations and scholarly accuracy in a way which unexpectedly results in a real page-turner… there are few in its class. And what’s more, it was handed to me by my friend Paul with the words, “I thought of you the whole time I read it” — nothing like that to prick up one’s ears. And I think you’ll like it too.

Click here to order from an independent online bookstore.