Nerves of steel

624.1821092273, High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline, 1881 to the Present, by Jim Rasenberger (2004).

Rasenberger is a real storyteller, of an old-fashioned sort that draws you in.  I read this book quite quickly, completely absorbed in every detail of steel working that he cared to present, from early 20th century labor disputes to tearing apart the debris pile at Ground Zero following 9/11.  Most of the book alternates between the history of steel working and a few early 21st century projects that Rasenberger followed in New York City.  He weaves these two eras together beautifully, juxtaposing a worker’s concerns about a bridge that ultimately collapsed during construction in 1907 with modern steel workers’ careful balance between too much– or too little– fear.

There were a few disappointing lapses, as when he mentions that the critical differences between iron and steel as building materials arise from… well, they’re not the same material.  …because they’re different, you see.  Unfortunately, he never explains why they’re different (apparently it has something to do with carbon?).

Overall, Rasenberger does a masterful job of capturing the odd aerial ballet of tons of steel swinging through the air, beams that vibrate and shimmy as steel workers move across them, and the men who create huge structures with little more than steel and wrenches, boots and a good sense of balance.  The subject matter was fascinating, but I have the feeling that I’d be equally enthralled with anything Rasenberger cared to write about.

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