A romp through frozen water :  ''Of Ice and Men : How We've Used Cold to Transform Humanity by Fred Hogge.

Early in my career, I became fascinated by the tropics; the struggle to exist steamy, often hostile environments resulted in captivating civilizations. Only much later did I become interested in the frozen far north, whose equally challenging conditions have pushed people to extraordinary lengths.

I wasn't alone : People are more interested in heat than cold. Scientists studied the origin and possibilities of heat long before turning their attention to lower temperatures.

Until the late Middle Ages, many scholars believed that an island called Thule was the source of all cold. And to this day, there exist far more books about the nature of fire, its origin and history and impact on civilization, than about its frozen counterpart.

Contrary to its subtitle, Fred Hogge's ''Of Ice and Men'' is neither the definitive history nor the epic saga of ice. But the Steinbeckian pun of a title itself does tell us what to expect : This book is funny and quirky and full of well-told stories and irreverent asides. Hogge wants us to have a good time, and he seems to be having one himself.

The story of ice and men begins with the ancient Sumerians. The first known civilization to have developed a written language, the Sumerians were, as a result, the earliest documented - and thus the first [or first recorded] to have achieved many human milestones.

Hogge credits them with building both the first city and the first ice pits, a remarkable achievement in what is now a hot, dry desert climate.

Hogge, a gifted storyteller, brings this and many other subjects to cinematic life. Sometimes, rather too literally. The 1986 movie ''The Mosquito Coast'' is, at least, about an ice machine.

But the frequent film references can be baffling; does ''Apocalypse Now'' really inform us about early Arctic exploration? 

Hogge has a tendency to treat films as historic documents; the discovery of cannibalism on the whale ship Essex is not attributed to the historian Nathaniel Philbrick, who wrote ''In the Heart of the Sea,'' but rather to the director of its adaptation, Ron Howard.

What do we glean from from Hogge's well-spun account of the development of refrigeration from the fact that Frank Sinatra compared Grace Kelly to a Frigidaire in ''High Society''? Unclear. Sometimes you feel he would have preferred just writing a book about his favorite film moments.'' Takes of Wrath''?]

In the end, Hogge covers what he wants to, and he generally does it well, as the book winds its way anecdotally through key developments of ice and man. Much of what he does include is fascinating, such as the chapter on medical hypothermia, the chilling of a patient for a heart surgery.

The idea, it seems, dated back to Hippocrates in the fourth century B.C. There are good stories for air-conditioning and refrigeration and cocktails, though these are often fragmentary.  

Hogge infrequently makes small historical errors. It happens; I've made mistakes, too. The one I'd deem serious is his assertion that after the American Revolution, and before ice, New England had little to trade.

In fact, these ports were hugely profitable, trading in fish, molasses, rum and -shamefully- enslaved people from Africa. The success of such trade was, indeed, one of the reasons Massachusetts colonials pushed  so strongly for independence.

But, this error aside, reading the book can be a pleasure. At a certain point, you just have to go with its seemingly shambolic structure - Hogge will be Hogge. And then, after all of the wondering, the seemingly arbitrary digressions, the frustrating omissions, the film references , Hogge does the truly unexpected:

He ties the book up beautifully, with a detailed, well-explained chapter on climate change. There was, it seems, a method to his madness. Refrigeration, air conditioning, frozen food, even skiing - all of these things have contributed to global warming. 

The book opens with a harrowing exploration of the frozen Arctic frontier and then, in part because of two centuries of ice inventions, the same Arctic frontier is melting.

Stick with it, and this book will inform and amuse you. Of course, just when it's gliding to a consequential finish, a completely random aside pops up : It's a reference to the 1984 film '' The Killing Fields.''

The World Students Society thanks review author Mark Kurlansky.


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