Thursday, November 16, 2006

Book Review: "Passionate Minds"

David Bodanis' book can certainly lay claim to at least one superlative among my reading list: having one of the longest subtitles I've read this year. Its full title is Passionate Minds: The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Ch√Ętelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world. Whew.

This is one of those books which, done right, would be amazing. It's got the perfect storm of possibilities: intensely interesting characters, coupled with enough politics, literature, science, romance and intrigue to knock a reader's socks off. That potential is perhaps why this book was so disappointing. It's not awful by a long shot, but Bodanis' breezy style and loose technique detract from his subjects (both human and topical). Conflating quotations, using material out of sequence to suit his purposes, switching translations willy-nilly, and generally flouting the standards of conventional biography don't really work well here, nor does Bodanis' habit of inserting anachronistic comparisons into the text.

The subtitle basically is the book in a nutshell so I won't go too far into the plot except to note that Bodanis attempts to make the case for du Ch√Ętelet's inclusion in the great pantheon of Enlightenment scientists. I think that case can be made, but I wish Bodanis had chosen to focus more on Emilie's scientific contributions rather than so single-mindedly on her barely-scandalous amorous adventures.

Bodanis' choice of citation is also problematic - there are no indications of citation in the text, so one must examine the rear of the book and find the page number and sentence to which the notes refer. A cumbersome process in the best of circumstances, but entirely necessary here, since the notes are where the author admits that he's tinkered with quotations and so forth.

A readable and interesting history of two remarkable characters ... but it could have been so much more.

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