Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Books Like Whoa: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes (2012 Book Challenge)

He blinded me with science!

The Age of Wonder
by Richard Holmes

Procured from a certain ginormous online audio bookseller

Procured in December 2011

Finished on February 19, 2011

Format: Audio, narrated by a fabulously austere British dude

Why I gave it a try: I heard the author on Radiolab, and the story he told was so interesting that I figured I would check out his book. I am a sucker for narrative nonfiction and interesting science, so this was right up my alley (see episode here)

Summary: Holmes has taken us back to the tipping point of scientific knowledge - not just in the intelligentsia or academic elite, but increasingly among the general populace. Focusing on Britain (and a little France thrown in), we see inauguration of the Romantic Era of science and literature with Joseph Banks' voyage with Captain Cook to Tahiti and follow along as one brilliant mind after another come to the forefront of their respective fields. 

Thoughts: I know that this kind of book is not everyone's cup of tea. A lot of folks do not subscribe to the notion that nonfiction can be interesting or pleasurable - likewise, there are folks who are adverse to the idea of adults reading fiction because it is too frivolous. To both of these groups I say: Poppycock! I defy you both! You are both dunderheaded ninny-muffins! (okay, trying to calm down from yelling at imaginary people...) Readers who refuse to read non-fiction and vice versa are depriving themselves of wonderful experiences based on past negative experiences. So let me be clear: non-fiction can contain some of the best writing, with the highest levels of escapism, and the craziest characters you can imagine. And it's all true (or based on truth, depending on your level of skepticism), which ups the interest factor.

All that being said, this was narrative non-fiction par excellence. Holmes managed to weave the "narrative" part of the non-fiction into a highly satisfying world that leisurely meanders through the various lives and discoveries of scientists at the turn of the 19th century. Anchoring the framework on a bloke named Sir Joseph Banks (not the clothing store proprietor, to my knowledge), we examine the innovations in botany, astronomy, chemistry, and physics on both sides of the English channel. The writing was all you could ask for, from any genre of literature, and he succeeded in making the various mini-biographies sing together to tell a broader story.

Aside from the specific discoveries and inventions (did you ever stop to think about how thrilling hot air balloons were to the first crowds who watched them? did you know about the Endeavour expedition and all the kinky things that went on in Tahiti?), I was struck by 3 aspects of the era's culture that I hadn't fully considered. First, I was amazed at the degree to which every day people were interested in and aware of the advances in science of their day. I can't really imagine an applied chemistry book or a detailed scientific account of an exploration topping the bestseller's list today, but this is what was going on back in the day. Second, as a result of this pervasive cultural awareness of the burgeoning scientific revolution, the scientists that were making these discoveries were a major part of popular culture. I wish this had been better emphasized in my English classes on Romantic era literature. Having this kind of background makes that era's cultural outputs have a much richer context (think of Shelley's Frankenstein).

Third, as is reflected in the title, I was struck anew as to how we came to call this period the Romantic period. Jammed between the Enlightenment and Rationalism, this was a period of time when as a culture, we allowed ourselves to be taken up in the wonder and beauty of the natural world. There was a sense of, "hey, can you believe that someone has figured out how to keep lanterns from exploding in mines using chemistry- what else is possible?!" I mourn the fact that we've lost that sense of awe and respect for how the human mind can manipulate the laws of nature. That idealism and humility have been replaced with cynicism and arrogance when we size up our technological capabilities. The other day I was in the car with some colleagues, hundreds of miles from home, on the 4G MiFi internet I have at my fingertips, working on powerpoint report, when I looked up and remarked, "Isn't it amazing that I can be talking to someone in Dallas on my computer while I'm riding in the car in Chicago?" The others just kind of smiled weakly and went back to their own thoughts, but I am constantly amazed at what our applied sciences have brought to human life.

This was the biggest point of interest and gratitude that I have coming away from this book - it reminded me of all that we have accomplished and what kinds of crazy people it takes to "boldly go where no man has gone before." Sometimes people who are familiar with my religious leanings are surprised that I like popular science stuff so much - to me, it makes complete sense. I see the natural world as the tapestry that God has woven together and it is my pleasure and duty to marvel at the stitching.

I really loved this book and if it sounds at all like something that you are at all interested in, you should definitely give it a try. 


6 - Why are you still reading this review? Go pick this one up NOW

Do you like narrative nonfiction? Has a narrative nonfiction book ever changed your mind about a topic or person?

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