Recounts the story of Joseph Priestley--scientist and theologian, protégé of Benjamin Franklin--an 18th-century radical thinker who played pivotal roles in the invention of ecosystem science, the founding of the Unitarian Church, and the intellectual development of the U.S.
Science and religion seem to be constantly in conflict today, wedges that drive Americans apart. An individual’s scientific beliefs often are based more on religious or political leanings than on the study of science. Higher education is scorned by highly educated politicians who kvetch that the very foundation of education – critical thinking based on reason – is antithetical to religious belief.
In Priestley’s day, it wasn’t uncommon for clergymen (like Priestley himself) to be engaged in scientific pursuits … and to be engaged politically. After all, they were well educated and had the leisure time to pursue such interests. They weren’t out in the field dawn to dusk working to feed, clothe and house themselves. And politicians had intellectual lives, not being consumed for their entire life with pursuit of political office.
I read the author’s Ghost Map, a multi-faceted tale of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, for my non-fiction readers’ group. It was, like The Invention of Air, an amazing book … taking a slice of history, looking at it from all angles, slicing it and dicing it to examine its constituent parts, then putting it all back together so it makes sense to a non-expert reader. I admire the kind of brain that creates a book like that, and makes it readable.
This book is nothing near Steven Johnson's previous works. Ghost Map is a far superior book.
The Invention of Air is very repetitive (sometimes Johnson repeats the same argument twice within the same paragraph) and consists of way too many quotes from letters and other books.
Almost 20-25% of the book is direct quotes and it becomes very tiresome to read all of them after a while.
But all in all the story of Priestley is a very interesting one and that kept me going to the end, but a long magazine article could also have done the trick.
Mark Deakins is a good enough reader. He soars through foreign phrases; however, he stumbles strangely on some ordinary English words and at times makes everything amusingly portentious. But he was very clear and audible, requiring very little effort to understand while on a 1900 mile drive.
Overall, The Invention of Air is relatively light on the science – lighter than Lavosier in the Year One, to take a book that trods similar ground as an example, which itself was relatively light. And occasionally it is slightly annoying with either overreaching or being overly excited about simplicity. But overall it was quite a unique book.
a key element of this knocked me off my feet: Johnson talks about the complex nature of society and how certain people at certain times in certain places are influenced by deeper cultural forces culminating in breakthroughs and revolutions and revelations in thought and design. this complex system he brilliantly models as an ecosystem - he uses ecological theory to help understand what is going on. something i have been groping towards for decades in my own research on complex, psychosocial systems.
if can find fault in this book, it’s the latter half. once Johnson moves on from Priestley’s halcyon days with the mint plant experiments and his scientific blooming to his later years and his religious and political work, the book stumbles. applying the ecological model and connecting Priestley’s and Franklin’s ideas about plants being vital to our planet to our modern green movements and life sciences gave a fresh and interesting perspective to their work. the latter part of the book about religion and politics did not have this innovative conceptual nuance. it became a simple -if still readable and well-written- historical biography.
A good editor would have really helped. Johnson was trying to do too much with this book. He wanted to write a biography of Joseph Priestley, he wanted to persuade us about how important Priestley was, he wanted to talk about science and scientific thought and how discoveries are made, he wanted to talk about politics, about religion, about American history.
And then there was the stuff in there that I didn't understand at all, something about paradigms and some diagrams that had nothing AT ALL to do with the actual subject of the book. What was going on here? Didn't this get edited, ever? Yes, I understand that he thinks Priestley was some kind of genius who wrote about all kinds of things, science and religion and politics, but I didn't feel that I really understood him. He just jumped onto the scene in London and threw himself into intellectual life. What about some deeper analysis of who he was?
I didn't hate this book. It was a quick read. But it wasn't what I expected at all. 2.5 stars.