Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Review: In Search of Sir Thomas Browne

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind
Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Literature, science, philosophy

I must admit that, before I read this book, I had never heard of Sir Thomas Browne.

Now I've heard of him, but I'm not terribly clear on why.

"The Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind" is a very large title for a period that included Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, and Galileo. OK, this is the U.S. title, and presumably the choice wasn't the author's. All the same, it seems to me that this book tells me more about Hugh Aldersey-Williams than it tells me about Sir Thomas. The latter still seems like a minor figure of English letters, in the classic mold of the early-modern gentleman dabbler. His thinking is fairly typical of the proto-Enlightenment--an eclectic melange of modern-seeming attitudes and traditional verities, in much the same way as Newton spent much of his life working on alchemy and Biblical eschatology.

Read as a series of interlinked personal essays inspired by Browne, the book is quirky and personal in a stereotypically English way. I admire Aldersey-Williams's ability to draw out tangible connections across the centuries, I enjoy his digressions, and I applaud him for putting the intellectual roots of humanism on display; but he's too ready to read his own views into Browne's writing, and make of him something that he isn't. His admiration for Browne's highly mannered writing style is lovingly communicated, but I'm not fully in agreement; perhaps I would be if I read more of the original.

In short, this is a book with considerable charm and a pleasing central message, but without a lot of consequential information. I'm not immune to the charm, but I can't help noticing the gaps.

I am reminded somewhat of Steven Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which likewise imputes to some fairly obscure early-modern literature and biography period an exaggerated importance. In Search of Sir Thomas Browne is more personal. In the spirit of its central character, furthermore, it's both more accurate and less polemical.

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