EPS Review #211 - The Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes, Harper 2009(2008), 554pp.

Another bi-monthly book-club meeting has come and gone, and I did not even review our last book, Wolf Hall. That is because I could not finish it. Everyone else liked the novel, and I thought the writing was good. But I found myself confused too often, even after a lot of paging to the front of the book to read yet again who was who. Mantel's style for some reason uses a lot of ambiguous pronoun references. Anyway, now I'll never finish it as we have given it away.

I picked Age of Wonder for the next book because of all its rave reviews, not least by Oliver Sacks. The book is a history of British science, mostly over the lifetime of Joseph Banks, starting with his trip to Tahiti in 1796. I have not read Patrick O'Brian's book on Banks -- I wonder if he covers the prurient bits so closely! I liked the discovery of surfing:

It was in a place where the shore was not guarded by a reef as is usually the case, consequently a high surf fell upon the shore. A more dreadful one I have not often seen: no European boat could have landed in it and I think no European who had by any means got into it could possibly have saved his life, as the shore was covered with pebbles and large stones. In the midst of this 10 or 12 Indians were swimming.

Next Holmes tells the story of Herschel, a lonely emigrant from Germany, with his devoted sister and his home-made state-of-the-art telescopes. Herschel discovers Uranus (yes the joke is referred to) and his sister discovers her share of comets and nebulae (Holmes ponders her poor love-life, too).

After that, there's a lot of ballooning (including speculation on the first mile-high club). Vincent Lunardi made the first balloon ride in Britain, which landed in our very own shire. Note to self: visit the plinth. Meanwhile Jeffries (from Boston) and Blanchard made the first balloon crossing of the channel, ending up by dropping their last ballast (urine and possibly poo) over the forest of Guînes, where we once camped.

Next there is a lot about Humphry Davy, his girlfriends, and his experiments and big parties with Nitrous Oxide gas. At one point he drank a bottle of wine as fast as he could, then inhaled gallons of Nitrous to see if it lessened the hangover. He also vouchsafes his stoner ideas ("Nothing exists but Thoughts!") to his assistant.

This is all good stuff, and there's lots more of it. Holmes's thesis, which alas often reads like a high-school paper, is that art and science were not considered separate when the term "scientist" was being defined, and should not be so separate today. There is a lot of repetition and some bad poetry: I was forced to skim, which I hate doing. Sometimes I wonder if professional reviewers don't skim like crazy.

Jeff wrote: While I've not read O'Brien's bio of Banks, O'Brien dedicates a book in Master and Commander to Tahiti (I will have to locate which one from home). A key theme around forming strategic alliances with Polynesia and besting the French, which Cpt. Jack Aubrey does while shagging Tahitti's Queen. In effect, he fulfills 2X his duties .. .

I replied: I'd forgotten that! Must read the series again.

Jeff replied: I have two to go. Anticipate a void when done.

Tim wrote: I thought it was just me; I keep having arguments with Emily about ambiguous pronoun references in her speech; she claims it's my early-onset Alzheimer's.

Emily wrote: Thank you for the ambiguous pronoun reference link. I suppose that torn sweaters and bashed in garage doors will never be the focus of my reading. So when the ambiguity strikes, I just assign it to whomever I wish and get on with my reading. I suppose I would not make a good detective, nor a good detective novelist.

Women, I think you are right Tim, they are the ones to blame in all of this.

I replied: Yes, those weren't the absolute best examples of ambiguity. I was pretty sure there were funny and relevant examples in Strunk & White or Fowler, but couldn't find any online.

Patricia's favorite solecism is the sentence that never ends.

Emily replied: Do you have the illustrated Strunk and White?

Kevin wrote: I just read Wolf Hall. Interesting you mention the ambiguous pronouns--I think I was nearly half way through the book before I had the realization that "he" almost always referred to Cromwell. Kind of a strange style, but it did allow the book to be written in third person and yet provide a more intimate first person vantage point. I put off reading it forever, thinking who wants to know more about Henry VIII. Anyway, I actually liked it a lot by the end and, as is typical for me after reading historical fiction, felt a loss upon finishing it, missing my vicarious life of the 16th century. I imagine the printing press was the internet of the 1500s. Mantel's Cromwell reminded me of [a former colleague of ours].

Completely unrelated: The Brain That Changes Itself , by Doidge is a great read, too.