More of a Thesaurus than Anything Else...

Oak.  Peter Young.  London, Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2013.  208 pages, including index and illustrations, most in color.

This is the second volume of a series intended to integrate horticultural and botanical writing with a broader account of the cultural and social impact of trees, plants, and flowers.  The tone is scholarly, the treatment global.

The volume was printed in China and is sturdily bound in a style reminiscent of Victorian books of yesteryear.  The resemblance to books of the Victorian era does not end here: both subject matter and writing style are much more akin to works of that time than to books written today, for better or for worse.  Quotations in verse or in prose appear on every page, the better to make a point and give it standing, one assumes, if not to impress with the erudition of the author.

Oak could best be compared to a cafeteria where a plethora of foods is presented, but there is no expectation that the same consumer will sample all of them at the same sitting.  I found it impossible to read through the book in long sittings: it is much too turgid for that.  Far better to read the separate chapters at separate sittings, according to taste.  

The goal is so broad (see first paragraph) that there is virtually no end to what is swept up and included in the book: any reference to any use of any oak at any time or place has been dutifully sought out and imported into the book.  It is therefore more of a thesaurus than anything else, and a reader interested in knowing, e.g. how oaks have figured in military decoration, should look at the section entitled “Symbols and Superstitions,” or the uses of oak in construction and artifact manufacture should look at the chapters entitled “Home” and “Away,” etc.  Young has left no stone unturned, and he has teased out every possible reference to oaks and parts of oaks from antiquity to the present.  This kind of thoroughness makes for exhaustingly dull reading, but I suppose that someone had to do it.  The one good thing is that no one else will ever have to do it again.

On balance, Oak will certainly serve for the foreseeable future as a source for learned references on oaks; as a book to read for pleasure, not so much.  This being so, I would recommend that you borrow the book from a library or someone else, rather than buying it yourself.  I suspect that you can find better uses for 20-plus dollars.