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21 April 2010

Book Review: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes

About halfway through this, I described it to a friend as a "boring book about really interesting people." I've not changed my mind much since then, though "boring" may be too harsh. 

Holmes ties the Romantic poets to Victorian science; so we get a little Coleridge, a little Shelley, a little Davy, a little Faraday, a little Banks, a little Wordsworth. Holmes is genteel enough to include a helpful glossary of important people, which I appreciated immensely, but I still felt his scope was a little too large to treat with deep, heart-felt and soulful interest (except, ironically, his Frankenstein's Creature section, which he constructed admirably)

Holmes starts with Joseph Banks, the curtained central character behind most of the happenings in British science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, describing in great detail his youthful voyage to Tahiti and how that man returned to England and, somehow, settled into a pedantic life of political jockeying for the sake of science as the head of the Royal Society. Holmes' conceit is that all things branch from Banks and the Royal Society. It almost works (and may well work if one knows more about that era than I do) but it seemed, to my completely uninitiated sensibilities, to be slightly too scatter-shot. Or maybe it was just too much to absorb and I would find my way more thoroughly on a second reading.

I learned a good deal, though. And I am fascinated enough with some of the figures (Mungo Park, Humphrey Davy) that I want to read about them further.