Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes, a Book Review

I picked The Age of Wonder off of the library's new book shelf, thinking it looked interesting and I almost cite put it back down after a few pages.  I'm glad I didn't.

The book starts out slowly, informative but slow going. Then, about a third of the way through, as an American, Dr. John Jeffries, and a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, set out to be the first to cross the English Channel in a balloon, quarreling all the while, the book took off.  The people described stopped being "significant historical figures" and became people, and I started to care what they thought and how they acted.

As the somewhat clunky subtitle The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science indicates, Richard Harris is looking again at the development of science in the Romantic era, arguing that instead of being opposed to the arts it developed alongside them. Coleridge wrote scientific essays.  Humphry Davy wrote poetry which Coleridge read and criticized. The two were friends, and were far from the only pair to cross the "divide" between science and poetry. In fact, as Harris illustrates with numerous excerpts from poems and poets, there was no such divide. The poets saw science as wonderful, as poetic; the scientist wrote poems.

The Age of Wonder covers a wide spread of personalities and times, looking at geographic and theoretical exploration both. It is heavy reading at times, but overall, fascinating and well worth the time. It also pairs well with Empires of Light by Jill Jones and Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity by David Bodanis, covering overlapping but not identical territory.

As I have fussed about illustrations in prior books, I will add that Age of Wonder has gorgeous full-color plates. They are not, strictly speaking, essential to the text, but I did enjoy getting a look at the people discussed.


  1. Mm, full-color plates. I love full-color plates. The only thing is that I get distracted by them when they come in inserts, and can't remember what was going on in the text. :p

    This has been on my wish list for a while. I need to go ahead and read it already!

  2. Sadly, they are inserts, but rather well spaced. With some books, I find it difficult to flip between. These were, oh, four or five different places and easy to get to.