Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 304 pp)

Jonathan Waldman has written for Outside, The Washington Post, and McSweeney’s. He has worked as a forklift driver, arborist, summer camp director, sticker salesman, and cook. He grew up in Washington, D.C., studied writing at Dartmouth and Boston University’s Knight Center for Science Journalism, and was recently a Ted Scripps Fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

Let’s Make Non-Fiction Interesting

My reading life exists in a pre E.O.A.M period and a post E.O.A.M. period. This crazy acronym of which I speak represents the book, Emperor of All Maladies. This groundbreaking book narrates the history of cancer. It takes a complicated topic rife with scientific complexity and weaves a riveting story.

And thus, a pursuit of all-encompassing creative prose about non-fiction topics begins.

Maybe it’s a dare to find the driest topic to see if it can come alive with creative writing. Maybe it’s because I always wanted to follow in such footsteps after gaining a degree in philosophy, hoping that any writing in which I might engage would transcend that standard boring academic rigidity.

Whatever it is, creative writing makes any topic fascinating.

The Pervasive Menace

Jonathan Waldman’s book, Rust, approaches this seemingly boring topic with a comedic touch. With chapters diving into the various stories and concepts behind corrosion, Waldman engages the reader in a rust odyssey.

The book explores historical developments around the rust battle; it elaborates on the comprehensive attempt at restoring the Stature of Liberty; it considers the engineering marvel of the aluminum can and how it beats rust; it ponders the difficulties of avoiding corrosion on the longest oil pipelines in the world.

Waldman tries his best to avoid conjuring a 200-page political think piece, even if he shows his hand every once in a while.

At its core, Rust presents a narrative of humanity versus nature.

“Rust is ubiquitous. It’s why cast-iron skillets are oiled, why copper wires are sheathed, why lightbulbs contain no oxygen, why spark plug electrodes are made of metals such as yttrium, iridium, platinum, or palladium, and why serious dental work costs an arm and a leg. The highest-ranked rust official in the country calls it ‘the pervasive menace’” (7).

Every human being engages with rust or corrosion in some shape or form. While many might try their best to avoid it, we can’t no matter where we reside on this blue, spinning planet.

Corrosion and Comedy

Even with the serious nature of humanity’s ongoing rust battle, Waldman inserts humor intermittently. Mostly in reference to mustaches.

“In my rough estimation, something like two thirds of these rust guys are mustachioed. I have a two-part theory about it. I suspect that (1) such mean recognize that fighting the growth of hair on their upper lips is futile, and that trimming, combing, and maintain makes much more sense; and that (2) such men, many of them technically minded engineers, who work within strict bounds, have few other artistic outlets” (9).

A fascinating look into the many cultural components of the rust war, Waldman suggest we all play a part.

“Whenever we build something, we balance material properties (strength, weight, ductility) with human constraints (cost, durability, buildability, repairability). The science, or art, is finding the right balance. That’s the job of an engineer. The responsibility of mature nonengineers is not to expect everything from every thing. If we accept imperfection and impermanence, upkeep becomes tolerable” (263).

Ultimately, the last sentence provides the biggest question. Are we as a people willing to accept imperfection and impermanence? Our neglect for the items around us create an endless cycle of waste. Even a small understanding of the ubiquitous war on corrosion would make our world a better place. If you’re interested in a creative look at an odd topic, give Rust a read.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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