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Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland

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Sand by Michael Welland

Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland

University of California Press

The Bottom Line

Born grain by grain in the mountains, sand washes down to strew the world's deserts, compose its soils and carpet its beaches; when finally at rest in the sea, sand sits ready to become new rock. Sand takes part in countless technologies. Sand also has given rise to commentary, poetic and scientific, from the earliest human times. In Sand, Michael Welland ably makes the subject of sand his base station for a journey around life, literature, and the whole earth system as known to today's geologists. He shows that to bear this weight of knowledge and allusion, sand indeed is a firm foundation.
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  • A refreshing non-textbook entree to geology
  • An inexhaustible source of cool trivia
  • A clinic in nonfiction writing that is not dry
  • Excellent illustrations and color photographs


  • Requires sustained attention for best results
  • Small print and lapidary prose challenge late-night readers


  • Examination of sand and related topics from all angles
  • Excursions into Earth science, history, biography and technology
  • Liberally seasoned with lore, trivia and literary asides

Guide Review - Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland

Sand is a staggering topic when you look at it closely. In 1997 I wrote the first version of this short article on sand, and I found a great variety of things to say as I wrote it. I am flattered that in Sand: The Never-Ending Story, geologist Michael Welland has that article in his list of recommended general reading. But the reader should really go the other way: read my article and then imagine it expanded to 300 pages of detail, illustrations and extra topics. That's Sand in a nutshell.

Sand has a central role in geology, of course; it occurs loose on the ground, locked in bedrock, even lying in dunes on other planets. Geologists know that a grain of sand has a thousand lives and is truly a never-ending story, analogous to an atom in chemistry. But to most people sand is something else. It's the stuff of beaches and deserts, a medium of play, a raw material for a thousand purposes. In Sand, Welland has looked closely at all of this and organized an expertly guided tour for inquisitive adult readers.

Any comprehensive book about sand is a collection of facts, factlets, narrative and pictures that is rather like geology itself: always leading toward other subjects and specialties. A geologist is challenged to grasp this sprawling topic in geology alone, but sand drifts into extremities beyond Earth science itself. For instance, sand, or to be more precise granular material, is a distinct state of matter between solid and liquid that is a lively but obscure research topic in basic physics. Sand is also a fundamental material in technology, a commonplace in daily life and a rich source of metaphor and simile in literature.

Fortunately Welland is a researcher of unflagging curiosity and a writer of great organizing skill. He bridges the sciences and humanities with ease. When discussing the sands of the desert, for instance, he takes time to quote Herodotus and Balzac before he launches into the geography. Elsewhere he brings to life the insights of the Earth artist as well as those of the sedimentologist. He delves into manufacturing, where sand is involved with everything from toothpaste to concrete. He even throws in an A-to-Z chapter on "Sand in Our Lives" as an encyclopedic gesture.

Sand the book starts by defining sand the substance: it's purely, and merely, a matter of size. But by the book's end Welland has touched seemingly all of history, Earth and space. This is a rare achievement that guarantees the pleasure of learning with every rereading.

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