Read all about the four classic elements — earth, air, fire and water

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 26, 2018

By Paul Birkhead

Rowan Public Library

Do you know what the four classic elements are? They are earth, air, fire and water. I thought it might be a fun gimmick to mention books available in the library whose subject matter contains at least one of the four elements.

There are two interesting books in the library’s collection that focus on earth. The first is titled, “The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet.” Henry Fountain, a science writer for the New York Times, researched and wrote this book about the 1964 Alaska earthquake.

The 9.2 magnitude quake was the biggest ever recorded in North America and the second largest the world has ever known. In the book, survivors’ stories are recounted and scientific evidence is examined to determine the cause of the deadly event.

The second book about earth is “The Ground Beneath Us.” Written by Paul Bogard, this study of the planet’s top layer is fascinating from many points of view. Students of history will appreciate stories about the Holocaust and American Civil War, while fans of travel will enjoy visits to far and exotic places. After a lesson about soil, farming and urbanization’s impact on our planet is examined. From paving to fracking, it is quite sobering to realize the extent of damage that is done to our planet every day.

Another element, air, is represented by two other books. “Caesar’s Last Breath,” by Sam Kean, looks at the air that surrounds us every day. This is a very scientific book that contains enough fun facts to make it interesting.

“Death in the Air,” written by Kate Winkler Dawson, tells the story of two killers striking London in the winter of 1952. One, a blanketing smog that caused over 12,000 deaths, and the second, a person who murdered at least six women.

The next element, fire, was easy to find books about. “Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future,” by Edward Struzik, was published last year but is very timely as parts of California are still ablaze. Struzik’s research into environmental factors and forestry management practices explain why firestorms have unfortunately become the new normal.

“American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” is a tale of the tragedy that rural Accomack County, Virginia, endured during half a year in the clutches of a serial arsonist. Monica Hesse, a writer for the Washington Post, lived in the area as she researched the book and the intimate knowledge of the locale shows in her work.

Water is the fourth classic element. In “Ruthless Tide,” writer and TV weatherman Al Roker recounts the story of the infamous Johnstown Flood. On May 31, 1899, a dam 14 miles upstream from the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, burst and decimated the surrounding community. Millions of dollars in damage, 2,000 lives lost, and the first natural disaster relief effort combine to make this a fascinating read.

“The Water Will Come,” by Jeff Goodel, is book about the changing climate and its effect on global sea levels. While some might not agree with the climate predictions, it’s hard to deny that lump in your throat when you read about what could happen to some of the world’s largest cities.

Although some topics might make you uneasy, come into Rowan Public Library and stretch your comfort zone by checking out books featuring the four classic elements.

Great American Read testimonials: South, Aug. 28, 5-7 p.m. Record a testimonial detailing which book should be considered “America’s Favorite.” Testimonials will be shared on social media, submitted to PBS and could be selected to air on PBS this fall. For more details, contact Abby at 704-216-8248 or at

Book Bites Book Club: South, Aug. 28, 6 p.m. This month’s selection is “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. Refreshments will be served, and new members are welcome. Questions? Contact Paulette at

Library Card Sign-up Month: Sept. 1-30. Headquarters, East and South branches. Join us as we celebrate 2018’s Library Card Sign-up Month at all of our branches. Do you have your library card? Cards are free and, when kept in good standing, give you access to RPL’s circulating collection, computer labs and online resources and materials. Contact your nearest branch for more details or visit RPL’s website.

Displays: Headquarters, Communities in Schools; East, a celebration of African culture by James Rhea; South, artwork by Miranda Foster.

Literacy: Call the Rowan County Literacy Council at 704-216-8266 for more information on teaching or receiving literacy tutoring for English speakers or for those for whom English is a second language.