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A Journey in Search of Moonlight


A Journey in Search of Moonlight

“Nobody who has not taken one can imagine the beauty of a walk through Rome by full moon,” wrote Goethe in 1787. Sadly, the imagination is all we have today: in Rome, as in every other modern city, moonlight has been banished, replaced by the twenty-four-hour glow of streetlights in a world that never sleeps. Moonlight, for most of us, is no more.

So James Attlee set out to find it. Nocturne is the record of that journey, a traveler’s tale that takes readers on a dazzling nighttime trek that ranges across continents, from prehistory to the present, and through both the physical world and the realms of art and literature. Attlee attends a Buddhist full-moon ceremony in Japan, meets a moon jellyfish on a beach in Northern France, takes a moonlit hike in the Arizona desert, and experiences a lunar eclipse on New Year’s Eve atop the snowbound Welsh hills. Each locale is illuminated not just by the moonlight he seeks, but by the culture and history that define it. We learn about Mussolini’s pathological fear of moonlight; trace the connections between Caspar David Friedrich, Rudolf Hess, and the Apollo space mission; and meet the inventors of the Moonlight Collector in the American desert, who aim to cure all kinds of ailments with concentrated lunar rays. Svevo and Blake, Whistler and Hokusai, Li Po and Marinetti are all enlisted, as foils, friends, or fellow travelers, on Attlee’s journey.

Pulled by the moon like the tide, Attlee is firmly in a tradition of wandering pilgrims that stretches from Basho to Sebald; like them, he presents our familiar world anew.

Listen to the author read a chapter from the book.

320 pages | 6 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2011

History: General History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature

Travel and Tourism: Travel Writing and Guides


 "[R]ambling . . . charming . . . spellbinding. . . . As we reel through Attlee’s idiosyncratic investigation of his subject—with detours that discuss Mussolini, the Madonna, the Victorian painter Samuel Palmer—he provides a magpie assortment of facts. . . . Modern man, in Attlee’s view, has done his best to ignore moonlight. And man will continue to vanquish it—at least until the power runs out. Attlee makes us question such folly. His journey has no final destination, just many stops along a path that could—and should—unwind for a lifetime. In this way, Nocturne is an inspiration. It makes you want to pull a chair out into the garden and bathe in the moonlight. No questions asked."

Domionique Brown | New York Times Book Review

"Attlee is a true enthusiast, and is fascinated by, indeed loves, his subject. He writes beautifully and often thrillingly about the moon in all its--her?--aspects, and it will be a dull-minded reader who comes away from this book without a new or at least renewed regard for the extraordinary, silver satellite that is our world’s constant companion"

John Banville | Guardian

"One of the things that strikes you is how much pleasure Attlee, an aesthete, amateur astronomer and connoisseur, takes from simply looking. . . . Attlee has a considerable talent for capturing the thrill of historical moments. . . . But Nocturne becomes more than a series of loosely woven vignettes. Attlee’s observations of the night sky take on a cumulative weight, forming a kind of guide for good living on Earth: late night walks, the pleasures of looking, the spectacular and forgotten thrills of natural phenomena, how we might find profound pleasure in the here and now we have overlooked."

Adam O'Riordan | Sunday Telegraph

"One would be hard-pressed to find a better tour guide than English writer James Attlee. On his global quest for moonlight, he has a gentle sense of humor and an even temper when clouds and rain botch his well-laid plans. Best of all, he is perpetually illuminating about what the moon has meant to humans through the centuries."

Jan Gardner | Boston Globe

"Attlee is a congenial writer, consistently readable, erudite yet modest. . . . Nocturne is never less than absorbing: moonlight may be tenuous stuff but there’s a lot of matter here."

Financial Times

"A stellar appreciation for the myriad quantifiable and amorphous attributes that have made the moon a source of magic and wonder through the ages."

Library Journal

"Nocturne is an enchanting moonlit sojourn born of wisdom and celestial wonder."

A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past

"Nocturne is a charming book, filled with hundreds and thousands of facts and stories about the moon, not one of which we really need to know but nearly all of which are fascinating. As a result we close the book enriched, with a pocket full of change we can spend wherever we want."

Dave Hickey, author of The Invisible Dragon: Seven Essays on Beauty

“This is a winner of a book. A luminous meditation on moon-glow and moon-glade and the sub-lunar landscape seen only by glimmer-struck savants.”

John R. Stilgoe, author of Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places

"Nocturne is a compendious, moving and impassioned guide to the heavenly body that its author calls, in a perfect metaphor, the ’Garbo of the skies.’"

Irish Times

Table of Contents


Sky Maps and Ghost Ships

Part One: Syzigy

A Three-Dog Night by the River
A Barefoot Galileo
Absorbed by Its Shadows
Eostre and a Paschal Moon
A White Horse and Mammoth Bones
Fear of the Dark
Darkness and the Desert: An Islamic Moon
Mussolini, the Madonna and Moonlight
Extollagers in the Valley of Vision: Memory, Moonlight and Samuel Palmer
Dark Adaption and the Eye of the Beholder
The Path of Totality
Adrift on the Iapetus Ocean
August Beach Moon, Normandy
Immaculate Conceptions and Transparent Moons
Let’s Murder the Moonlight! Futurists and the Moon
The Agency of the Night

Part Two: Tsukimi

Beyond the Gateless Gate: September Kyoto Moon
Cats’ Eyes and a McDonald’s Moon
Part Three: Vesuvio

The Alarming Mountain: Naples, Vesuvius and the Moon

Part Four: Lunada

From Vegas to Vega: American Moon
The Moon and the Standing People

Part Five: Mondschein

Raking the Shadows: A Romantic Moon

Part Six: Thamesis

Through Midnight Streets: The Thames and a London Moon


Blue Moon on Stonewall Hill

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