Saturday, August 6, 2011

Books I'm Reading: The Age of Wonder

I've just finished The Age of Wonder (originally published in England, by Harper Press, 2008, although I read the 2010 paperback edition from Vintage Press), by Richard Holmes, a writer with a long list of publications preceding this, mostly works on Shelley, Coleridge, and the English Romantic Poets. Covering the romantic period of scientific investigation in Europe (roughly from 1770 to 1820), The Age of Wonder is a portrait of the birth of modern science and the period during which many still-current views were formed about the meaning of the pursuit of science.

Holmes paints his portrait of the age through biographies of some of the most influential men and women of the day. The story is told mostly through the lives of Joseph Banks, William Herschel and his sister Caroline Herschel (and, later, William's son John), and Humphrey Davy--although the text is delightfully wide-ranging, with sections on balloonists and Frankenstein, and much about the response of poets and writers to advances in the science of the day. Other major themes include faith--and it was during this period, it seems, that many European thinkers really embraced the notion of a godless world, even if few of them (Shelley being an outstanding exception) were willing to openly profess atheism--and the debate on vitalism (the question of whether there is something that can be called a life force). Sections on Banks in Tahiti, on Caroline Herschel (an unjustly neglected figure), on Davy nearly killing himself during experiments on laughing gas and other gases, and on the context of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein were particularly vivid. I needn't add much more, I suppose, as this was a bestseller and has been widely reviewed, but I'd call it a top-notch piece of intellectual history. I very much enjoyed it. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I find "The Age of Wonder..." to be a very good book. Filled with facts and dates, it should be dry reading; instead, Holmes has written a wonderfully entertaining book about the Romantic Age of Discovery and those who made it so.


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