Despite all its many glorious forms—from clingy vinyl hip-huggers to Kodak film, Scotch tape and artificial heart valves—plastic doesn't get the respect it deserves. Mike Nichols's 1967 film The Graduate fixed the substance in infamy when the aimless grad played by Dustin Hoffman was given a fatuous tip: "I just want to say one word to you, Ben. Just one word...plastics."
Fenichell's quirky and informative history of plastic is also a scientific adventure full of successes and failures. An early stumble came in 1869, when prototype plastic-coated billiard balls were patented. One problem: If touched by a lighted cigar, the balls exploded. In 1875 a Newark plant that made celluloid dental plates spontaneously combusted, injuring workers. Newspapers of the era reported horror stories of men's shirt cuffs and women's dress buttons, both made of celluloid, bursting into flames on the wearers.
Over time, as technology improved, our lives (and landfills) filled with plastic. Sure, cotton, silk and wool are pleasing natural fibers. But before you snicker at plastic, imagine a life without credit cards, CDs, computer disks, movies, telephones, no-iron polyester and poker chips, not to mention those delightful pink flamingos that decorate our lawns. (HarperBusiness, $25)