Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review: "Joseph Banks: A Life"

Patrick O'Brian is best known for his series of "sea novels" featuring Captain Jack Aubrey (Master and Commander, &c.). But he's also a biographer, and his Joseph Banks: A Life is as fine a treatment of Banks as any I've read. O'Brian makes frequent and lengthy use of Banks' own letters, journals and diaries, sometimes stringing along huge quotations with only the slightest bits of connective prose. This and a couple other stylistic oddities were a little off-putting at first, but I got over them and quickly immersed myself in the book.

Bank's life (as globe-trotting botanist with Captain Cook; friend of Linneaus, George III, Samuel Johnson and Joseph Priestley; and longtime president of the Royal Society, among other positions) is one of those (like Johnson's or Priestley's, in fact) which I find it difficult not to be completely captivated by - how could one person have done so much?

The running heads for this book were useful and well-done; each page's header contains the years covered and Banks' age at the time, which made it easy to keep the chronology straight as I read. O'Brian's footnotes, however, leave something to be desired, and while he warns that certain editorial changes have been made to Banks' writings, he fails to note where those occur. Another minor quibble is with the lack of good maps; these are a must for books featuring travel or exploration, and those included here just didn't do the job (not only were they not detailed enough, but they were blurry as well).

A few minor faults, but otherwise quite a good biography, and one I would recommend.