I don’t read non-fiction as often as I perhaps should because I always miss fiction when I do that. But non-fiction, and particularly history of something else than wars and battles, always gives me this pleasant feeling of accomplishment.
The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
Find it on: LibraryThing
What it is:
A history of British science in the time of Romanticism, focusing on the biographies and achievements of several great scientists, like William Herschel, Humphry Davy and Joseph Banks. It aims to find connections between Romantic science and Romantic art (mainly poetry).
How I found it:
It was among a batch of historical books I’ve once marked for future reading. But I read non-fiction rarely and it took me a while to get to it.
It is more interesting that it has any business being.
Best things about it:
It reads almost like a novel, focusing on anecdotal details from the lives of the greats of British science, making them human and memorable. I didn’t know about any of them too well and now the facts are vivid in my memory.
Worst things about it:
I feel like the book doesn’t offer a clear enough thesis about the relationship between Romantic thought and its practical applications. The attempts to relate them mostly get limited to quotes from poetry without a more theoretical, maybe even more spiritual analysis of the contemporary ideas and when they do get mentioned (like Vitalism), they are not particularly well explained.
I appreciate the effort put into emphasizing the role of women who participated in the discoveries, or at least William Herschel’s sister, Caroline. It feels like the author felt a particular mission to re-establish her well-earned position.
Despite its length the book didn’t bore me, but I feel it could be shortened and thus become even livelier.
How it enriched my life:
I actually learned a lot about people I only knew vaguely or not at all and gained a clearer idea about various early-19th century scientific discoveries.
I will always appreciate a cover which uses an old engraving, especially with such a whimsical, subtle use of color. This one conveys well the mix of playfulness and academic seriousness, which Holmes manages to create.
It gave me a desire to read more non-fiction about explorers because I found those the most exciting chapters in the entire book (and explorers never interested me much before).
Science and history buffs who appreciate lively writing.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Next time: Nashville farewell