Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book Review: "The Age of Wonder"

Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Pantheon, 2009) is a detailed history of the age of British science from the 1770s through the 1820s. Through profiles of Sir Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, Sir Humphry Davy, Mungo Park, and the pioneering balloonists (among others), Holmes vividly captures the important connections between science, religion, and the arts which shaped the scientific debates of the era (shades of Wilson's Consilience), and the debaters themselves (I learned here of Davy's accomplishments in writing poetry, for example).

Age of Wonder, which has won all manner of awards, was a good read, but I can't remember a book that took me so long to get through, or felt so much like work to do so. Perhaps another sweep by the editors could have eliminated some of the repetitive aspects of the narrative that started to bother me, or might at least have brought more coherence to the text (it is, essentially, three separate biographical treatments - of Banks, the Herschels, and Davy - interspersed with digressions on other topics).

Overall I'm conflicted about the book. I wanted to like it more than I did.