The Curious Reader

  • Chronicle Books

Friday, June 23, 2017

Buried in the woods of western Massachusetts, sites like the Peace Pagoda in Leverett and the Eyrie House Ruins in Holyoke seem like relics of another place and time. In an area as quirky and diverse as this one, it may be easy to overlook the origin stories behind such curious places.

But for Brooklyn-based author Michael Hearst, these structural oddities are opportunities for extensive research and exploration. “I’m particularly fascinated by the Peace Pagoda in Leverett,” Hearst said, launching into an enthusiastic summary of everything he had learned about the many branches of Buddhism and their origins. The Pagoda honors a branch that was founded by a man who was deeply affected by the bombing of Hiroshima. 

“Under the guidance of several Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist monks, this dome-shaped monument came to be, perpetually exuding a sense of harmony and well-being,” Hearst explained. “In fact, after watching the live stream of Comey’s testimony, I’ve decided I’m moving into the Peace Pagoda. The monks won’t mind, will they?”

These snappy explanations and quips are the guiding voice of Hearst’s book, “Curious Constructions: A Peculiar Portfolio of Fifty Fascinating Structures,” published in April. While the Peace Pagoda and the Eyrie House aren’t featured in its pages, the book is a treasure trove of 50 peculiar buildings, monuments and more around the world.

The book is marketed toward children and teens, but Hearst’s wry sense of humor draws in readers of all ages. His jokes range from puns to contemporary pop culture references, and each explanation is accompanied by original illustrations by London-based artist Matt Johnstone. The structures covered include everything from a community of treehouses in Costa Rica to a giant skateboard ramp in California to the International Space Station to a giant mechanical fire-breathing octopus.

“Curious Constructions” is the third book in Hearst’s series, which also includes “Unusual Creatures” and “Extraordinary People.” “For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination with extremely specific themes, and with wanting to learn as much about them as I can,” Hearst said. With each of his books, he tells everyone what he’s working on and accepts suggestions beforehand. From there, he narrows his list down to 50 things that most interest him, and begins reading everything at hand and interviewing experts.

With his most recent installment, the result is a compilation of what the back of the book calls “fascinating accounts of constructions both fantastically useful and gloriously unnecessary [for] inquisitive readers, aspiring engineers and anyone who has ever looked at a skyscraper and thought, ‘Yeah, but what if it had a roller coaster on top?’”