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Oak: The Frame of Civilization

3.94  ·  Rating Details  ·  189 Ratings  ·  47 Reviews
Professional arborist and award-winning nature writer William Bryant Logan deftly relates the delightful history of the reciprocal relationship between humans and oak trees since time immemorial—a profound link that has almost been forgotten. From the ink of Bach’s cantatas, to the first boat to reach the New World, to the wagon, the barrel, and the sword, oak trees have b ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published July 17th 2006 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published July 1st 2005)
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Community Reviews

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Very nicely written, and bursting with passion for the subject. The problem is that, roughly halfway through the book, the author moves to presenting what could have been a series of short articles on oak, without really tying them together. Also, there are no in-text citations, just a list of sources at the back of the book. This tends to make me antsy in general.
Nicholas Whyte
Jul 12, 2015 Nicholas Whyte rated it liked it

Logan tries to show that the oak tree is Awfully Important to Western Civilisation, and indeed makes a reasonable case for the place of oak in various foundational texts and physical structures of our society. In particular, I liked the points made about the nutritional value of acorn flour (though it's odd that it isn't used more) and the oak structure of Westminster Hall and of early modern sailing ships. There were some odd slips (Burley for Burghley,
William Burruss
Feb 06, 2013 William Burruss rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Realtor, Land Specialist
Shelves: real-estate-land
The oak leaf is the main image of my corporate logo. It represents the generations of Burrusses that have worked the forests. It is easy to see why I picked-up William Bryant Logan’s book Oak, the Frame of Civilization at a vacationing bookstore. The title jumped at me. I knew the importance of the oak tree for my family’s company, Burruss Land & Lumber Company, and I knew how it was used in other Central Virginia companies but “the frame of civilization.” What was this all about?

It is sad t
Feb 03, 2008 William rated it really liked it
Everywhere man has developed, there have always been oak trees. The author, an arborist, opens with a story about a Jewish couple in Brooklyn preparing for another child. Logan is hired to come confirm the imminent demise of a tree in their yard. When he arrives, however, he finds a perfectly healthy tree and some desperate homeowners.

The couple, their house already crowded, desperately needed to expand, but the apple tree was in the way. It turned out that their sect of judaism prevented them f
Apr 11, 2014 Mike rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fun
William Bryant Logan picks book topics better than any author. A book about dirt? A book about oak? Brilliance!

Oak, especially for fans of Dirt, delivers. Logan may make some sketchy (though totally intriguing) claims into the history of man, but along the way he drastically changed the way I understand humans and our relationship to nature. Plus oak trees are fascinating! I can't wait to start eating acorns and building things with traditional framing joints. Bravo Logan -- you've changed my li
Rachel Bayles
Oct 22, 2014 Rachel Bayles rated it really liked it
Awe-inspiring. Makes its case that most important turning points in the development of our civilization were because of the oak tree. The author has an original and illuminative mind.
B. Rule
Feb 21, 2012 B. Rule rated it liked it
I enjoyed the part that described how each craft or profession relates to the oak, but I confess I'm too ignorant of construction principles to get much out of long descriptions of types of joints and carpentry whatnot. No wonder Josh likes it.
Dec 13, 2012 Andrew rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very readable book with a few persistent problems.

Let's start with what's good about it. If you're interested in acorns as food, naval history from Pepys to ironclads (US Civil War), barrel making, leather tanning or wooden-roof construction, and a pop description of oak propagation (Corvidae), and a little (char)colliery, this book is for you.

The book falls apart, well had me scratching my head in discussing acorn-economy cultures in the fertile crescent, specifically the Zagros Moun
Jul 29, 2008 brenda rated it it was amazing
i knew oak trees were beautiful, but who knew they were so important to humans, to cities, to economies, to progress....

this book is by the same guy who wrote dirt: the estatic skin of the earth. that book is like poetry and is amazing, the way the author puts words together, absolutely lyrical and beautiful. this book is more straight-forward information but i never could have guessed there could be so much to know about oak trees. according to the author, and he makes a good case for it, human
Jun 06, 2009 Rich rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those who have an abiding love for nature and the beauty of life.
Shelves: must-read

It's possible to read "Oak" and simply come away with an appreciation of quercus and the many benefits it has provided to humans and a host of other creatures. But that would be to miss what I consider to be major underlying themes of the book: trees (and nature) have an intrinsic worth that extends beyond mere monetary value, and humans reach their greatest potential when they appreciate and work with the natural world.

One of the most moving stories recounted occurs near the beginning of the bo

Amy Beth
Jan 06, 2016 Amy Beth rated it really liked it
This was a solid micro-history about how one tree has been helpful to humankind. I'm a bit skeptical of Logan's ideas that early humans lived on acorns in a golden age that eventually diminished. However, it's certainly an engaging idea/myth. The descriptions of bridges, boardwalks and even an artificial island of oak in Britain was my favorite part along with the explanation of how Viking boats worked (parts of the boat actually moved with the water in different directions).
Jan 27, 2013 Crystal rated it really liked it
I feel incredibly nerdy admitting this is the best book I've read in a long time. It is incredibly interesting, well-written and illuminating. I am absolutely in love with oak trees after reading this book. It is like a sinful, indulgent dessert for english majors, history enthusists, nature lovers and the naturally curious. I am all of these, and he touches on all these areas with artistry. The only reason I did not give it five stars is because he really lost me in all of the terminology in th ...more
Michael Blackmore
Apr 24, 2014 Michael Blackmore rated it liked it
Shelves: science
Yes, I did enjoy much of this book, but I couldn't quite give it more stars because there were long sections devoted to things that weren't really terribly interesting that I ended up having to skip to get to the more directly Oak related info. Things like boat building, etc. No doubt there are folks who might love those sections and skipped ones I cared about. Still there was good an interesting info throughout the book, but overall I think it could have worked out so much better as a shorter m ...more
Nov 11, 2008 Eric rated it really liked it
Shelves: natural-history
One of the most informative and interesting books I read last year. Sections on barrel making and ship building (it took something like 2000 acres of oak forest to build a large English navel ship) were particularly engrossing. Of course like most of the recent spate of natural history books, he has to engage in some creative thinking to show how said nature is integral to the whole history of the world. In this case he tries to show how early human communities in the middle east were balano-cul ...more
Jan 03, 2009 Kellan rated it liked it
Interesting, intriguing if problematic. Best when Logan is dealing in broad strokes, describing just so stories on pre-historic balanocultures. The 2nd half of the book unfortunately feels more like a series of interesting bits of Euro-centric trivia strung together. And some of that trivia, whether it's on the mystery of why Winchester doesn't collapse, or the historically unprecedented yields of the dehesas agricultural system.

But it doesn't live up to the promise of the early chapters or the
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Jun 10, 2007 Stephanie Paige Ogburn rated it liked it
Recommends it for: tree nerds and people with connection to oaks
Shelves: unfinished
Thus far, its interesting but not overwhelmingly so. If you are generally a tree or plant person and feel like learning minute details about oaks, this might be a good book. My major problems with it is that the author makes generalizations and assertions that are not cited in the text, and so it is hard to know where his facts come from. There is a bibliography, which helps, but since the work seems somewhat scholarly yet doesn't cite as an academic book would, one isn't quite sure what certain ...more
This was an interesting read, but ultimately it didn't stick with me nearly as much as his other book Dirt. I think its because this was a lot more "informative" and focused on a specific type of plant. And while oak trees can have a lot of literal and figurative qualities ascribed to it, and even though it does live throughout the world, it is nowhere near as universal as the Soil. Its a good book definitely worth the read if you are interested in the subject matter, but not a keeper in my worl ...more
Tim Weakley
After reading Salt by Mark Kurlansky I was ready for another book on the history of a common object and how it has affected us. Oak is along those lines but I found it to be less interesting than I had hoped. I think it would have been better as a series of long articles. The book has three major sections that don't really feel tied together. I did enjoy the section on the age of sail, but that has always been an interest of mine anyway and the information therein left me on familiar ground.
Oct 22, 2012 Cass rated it really liked it
This book was everything I expected, and just a little bit more. I could have done without the lengthy middle chapters with heavy lumberyard diction. I think the author got a lot of information on the subject and was too proud to edit it out. But the beginning chapters on Blanoculture and ending section on how the Oak has survived to be one of the fittest plants in the world were highly interesting and educational. I've already used bits of it to teach ecology to my 5th and 6th graders.
Salud Garcia
Sep 05, 2015 Salud Garcia rated it really liked it
Really, really good, but I could care less about the naval aspects.
Marilyn Mcentyre
Jul 26, 2010 Marilyn Mcentyre rated it it was amazing
It may be surprising that one can find a book on oaks stirring, and even moving, but I did. The compassion Logan extends to the natural world, the way he tells the story of oaks as remarkably adaptive survivors, and the beauty of his writing convince me that even people who don't tend to choose this kind of book would find it eye-opening. It will transform the way you look at trees. Perhaps it will make you, like Mary Oliver, "walk slowly and bow often."
May 16, 2013 Troy rated it it was ok
Shelves: environment
Beginning and ending sections were good, exactly what I was hoping for. They discussed the oak tree itself in both a scientific and cultural manner. The middle sections were devoted to uses of oak throughout history, but they essentially felt like a course on shipbuilding. Very drawn out chapters on how to build ships took away from the readability of this book. I was expecting something else, and came away a bit unsatisfied with this look at the oak.
Jan 23, 2010 Diane rated it it was amazing
I thoroughly enjoyed contemplating the evolution of humans from hominids through our relationship with oaks. Encountered many many words I hadn't known before, discovered the origins of words such as "cranky" and found out more about ship building than I ever thought I wanted to know. Ditto carpentry joints. Fun last chapter too, in which the Eiffel Tower is revealed as an inferior imitation of an oak tree.
Nov 07, 2014 Rob rated it really liked it
The hunter-gatherer in me loved the chapter on eating acorns.
Dec 02, 2010 Tarn rated it really liked it
A fascinating read - a bit more of a cohesive book that "Dirt, The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth," since that one was a collection of essays more than anything. Really a lot of fun! Logan posits that Oak (particularly white oak) was the crucial element creating the ability of the 'West' and the 'East' to form what we call civilization. Also, good stuff about balanophagy!
Jul 01, 2009 Dacotah rated it it was amazing
I learned that civilization was much more strongly connected to Oak trees than I had ever imagined. This is a great read for anyone interested in the rise of civilization and the role several species of oak trees. From its use as food (acorns) to shipbuilding and wine casks, the story of oaks is told in a compelling, thoughtful and ultimately memorable way.
Nov 04, 2013 Therese rated it it was amazing
"Since the glaciers last retreated and since humans began to build and settle down, there have been but two versions of the world: the world made with wood and the world made with oil and coal. One lasted twelve to fifteen millennia; the other has lasted 250 years so far. All that it is to be human was defined in and through wood......" Take good care of your trees!
Dec 01, 2012 Julia rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: did-not-finish
As a plant nerd with an obsession for oaks, I was really excited about this book. However, the writing was that of a high school level report. His theses are tenuously supported at best, and big chunks are just lists of things that are related to oaks. I made it halfway through the "Balanophagy" section before giving up.
Richard Thompson
May 22, 2013 Richard Thompson rated it it was amazing
Shelves: best1013, bestalltime
An excellent book about the place of the oak tree in human civilization.

Logan contends that the pattern of early human population spread followed, not the spread of agriculture, but the spread of oak forests.

Interesting sections on coppering, tanning, building with oak and ship building.

Aug 29, 2007 Gavin.boyles rated it liked it
Pretty interesting, as these kinds of books (Salt, Cod, etc.) tend to be. I always become convinced that, yeah, the world really _is_ all about [thing X]. If I were smarter, I guess I'd stop thinking that everytime I read one of these! Anyway, a fun read.
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William Bryant Logan is a certified arborist and president of Urban Arborists, Inc., a Brooklyn-based tree company. Logan has won numerous Quill and Trowel Awards from the Garden Writers of America and won a 2012 Senior Scholar Award from the New York State chapter of the International Society of Arborists. He also won an NEH grant to translate Calderon de la Barca. He is on faculty at NYBG and is ...more
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