Acquainted With the Night, by Christopher Dewdney

HarperCollins Canada, 313 pp, $34.95, hardcover.

Think of the power that darkness had before electricity, lamps, and candles, when there were only fires and burning sticks to push back the night. People must have felt the same mixture of fear and wonder, delight and awe that we still feel as children. Reading Christopher Dewdney's Acquainted With the Night: Excursions Through the World After Dark, a collection of nonfiction ruminations, reawakens those imaginings and sends us back into the night, senses heightened and alive.

Dewdney is best known as a poet who has combined a deft lyric touch with a deep interest in science. His books--this is his 15th--have been more admired than read. This time out, through the course of an imaginary 12-hour night, Dewdney uses personal observation, scientific fact, medicine, history, psychology, literature, and myth to explore our multifaceted relationship with the night. He is the very best kind of guide, a storyteller passionate about his subject, informed and articulate but quirky, too.

Some of the facts are astounding: the earth's rotation is slowing by about two milliseconds each century, and eventually the earth will simply stop. Threaded through the 12 chapters is the story of our attempts to conquer the night. Although the Romans had just candles and oil lamps, Rome was not surpassed for brightness until 1667, when Louis XIV decreed that Paris would be adorned with street lamps. During the French Revolution, a still-suspicious populace expressed its opposition by smashing the lanterns and hanging their victims from the posts. Most of us have acquiesced to streetlights now but are likely unaware of the cost, human and monetary: "In a natural night sky about thirty-five hundred stars should be visible to the unaided eye, but in a city, even in a dark yard, only about fifty stars are visible."

Not all the lore in Night will interest every reader, and without a cohesive narrative, the book sometimes slows and wobbles on its axis. But its two-page discursions allow for easy hops, skips, and jumps without inducing a fear of missing something. And any book that alters the way we experience the world is a book to be treasured.