Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: "The Invention of Air"

Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America (Riverhead, 2008) is a book that's rather difficult to pin down. It's not a straightforward biography of Joseph Priestley, nor is it a chronicle of his scientific discoveries, or of his accomplishments in various other fields. Nor is it a history of the Enlightenment processes which contributed to Priestley's worldview, or an exploration of how that worldview shaped and was shaped by the times, or a treatise on the interstices of science, government and religion. Each of those elements plays a role in Johnson's story, but combining them into one narrative (and managing, for the most part, to pull it off) is what makes this book different.

Johnson begins with and comes back frequently to the idea of Priestley as one of those rare figures (then and now) who manages to become well-known for accomplishments in several different fields. Priestley's record in that regard was unmatched in his own time and has remained so since (even Franklin, Rush and Jefferson don't quite measure up, and their own accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at - since them, there has never been another figure so well known for widespread influence in as many separate areas). This can be attributed, Johnson argues (and I agree) to the increased professionalization of scholarship, and to the decrease of leisure time.

The unique combination of circumstances which permitted Priestley's wide-ranging ideas to gestate and be transmitted through print (he saw hundreds of his books and pamphlets published during his lifetime) may never recur, but that simply serves to make his story more fascinating. Johnson writes easily of Priestley's scientific experiments, and of his forays into religion and politics (all of which served at one time or another to get the man into trouble). He describes his subject as a "compulsive sharer," always willing to make details of his discoveries known even if it meant losing credit for or profit from them. While he was sometimes stubbornly wrong (his refusal to abandon the phlogiston concept of air has long been an albatross around his scientific reputation), his contributions across the entire intellectual spectrum remain undervalued even today.

While any given part of Johnson's narrative may be covered in more depth by other authors (Jenny Uglow, Robert Schofield, &c.), his synthesis of them (along with brief aside-discourses on things like the role of coffee and more precise tools in spurring scientific development and a long essay on the Carboniferous period and the development of earth's current atmospheric composition) is what this book has to offer. Johnson's final chapters, on Priestley's final years in America and his important role in the late Jefferson-Adams correspondence is also particularly fascinating (Johnson points out that Priestley is mentioned in their retirement letters much more often than any other public figure).

There are minor problems with the book: several times in the opening pages I noted chronological errors ("1850s" for "1750s","seventeenth century" for "eighteenth century") and several typographical mistakes ("slock" for "stock" in a Priestley quote, among others). Johnson's endnotes are not indicated in the text, which is a shame since they are frequently very amusing. The bibliography, at least, is nicely done, and on the whole this is a very good introductory account of a fascinating public figure and his interactions with people who tend to be much more familiar to American readers (Franklin, Adams, Jefferson).

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