As our first technology for contemplation of the self, the mirror is arguably as important an invention as the wheel and perhaps even more universal. Mirror Mirror is the fascinating story of the mirror's invention, refinement, and use in an astonishing range of human activities-from the bloodthirsty smoking gods of the Toltecs, to the fantastic mirrored rooms wealthy Romans created for their orgies, to the mirror's key role in the use and understanding of light. From Archimedes to Isaac Newton to Max Factor to David Hockney, this is the fascinating tale of one of the most remarkable inventions in human history and its effects on myth, religion, science, manners, and the arts.
After exploring the history of coffee in Uncommon Grounds, Pendergrast now takes up another common object the mirror. How it evolved from the polished ornaments of ancient sun worshippers and an essential of 17th-century palace decor to the modern glass in everyman's bathroom is only one theme in this chronological survey. Throughout its history, Pendergrast shows, the mirror has symbolized vanity, self-examination and the limits of human understanding. He identifies the mirror as a favorite metaphor in Elizabethan literature; he also traces mirrors back to Greek myths and forward to Lewis Carroll's classic Through the Looking-Glass. A third theme is the magic mirror, into which conjurers have peered to communicate with the other world. Though condemned by the Church, this practice, called scrying, enjoyed a revival during the Renaissance and again during the Victorian spiritualism craze, while vaudevillian "smoke and mirror" shows flourished and toys for creating optical illusions provided home entertainment. Shifting to mirrors in science, Pendergrast describes optics from early philosophers' theories of vision through quantum physicists' discovery of light's dual particle-wave nature. Though informative, long technical sections about reflecting telescopes and other subjects will frustrate the reader lured by the book's suggestive subtitle. In the conclusion, Pendergrast speculates on the ability to recognize oneself in the mirror as evidence of a self-awareness unique to higher animals. If Pendergrast had shown more self-awareness as a writer, however, he might have resisted the urge to impose a chronological framework and to include seemingly every fact from his notes. The result would have been a more coherent and thoughtful book.