Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book Review: The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
Andrea Wulf

Alexander von Humboldt is probably the most famous person you've never heard of. And that's a shame. There's a reason the man has a couple of mountain ranges, an ocean current, a species of penguin, a bay, a glacier, a disappearing river, at least twenty U.S. places, etc. etc. etc. named after him. He influenced men as diverse as Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and Henry David Thoreau.

Andrea Wulf does a good job bringing von Humboldt out of the shadows as a person, and of documenting his influence. She does only a fair job at explaining the scientific aspects of his journeys, and at explaining why he was so influential to such a diverse group of readers. The substantive descriptions of Humboldt's findings are also spotty; her description of the Casiquiare River, for example--which splits and flows into two separate drainage basins--is pretty unclear (and the accompanying map is just plain wrong).

Where The Invention of Nature really shines, though, is as an intellectual biography. Wulf brings a pleasing coherence to von Humboldt's ... philosophy? way of thinking? worldview? What distinguished him, at least in Wulf's telling, was that he was one of the earliest thinkers to consider the world holistically, in terms of interconnected systems. He lived at the cusp of the Enlightenment/Romantic divide, and his though partakes of both traditions. He collected, he measured, he documented; but equally he explored, he thrilled, he synthesized.

The Invention of Nature doesn't quite make it onto my "everyone should run right out and read this" list. However, it's intriguing and readable and occasionally eye-opening; it commits the laudable feat of appealing equally to natural-history enthusiasts and biography mavens; and it gives its hero the credit he's due. Overall, a fine job.

I've read quite a lot of books in this general sector. Here are three that stand out:

  • The Invention of Air, by Steven Johnson, is an extended study on the theme of connectedness disguised as an excellent biography of the chemist Joseph Priestley. Johnson also wrote the superb The Ghost Map, which I mentioned here.
  • The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, is an amazing and beautifully written book about the Romantic era and its embrace of science.
  • The River of Doubt, by Candace Millard, recounts ex-President Theodore Roosevelt's jaw-dropping exploration of the Amazon basin.

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