Congratulations to the Age of Wonder [Book Preview]

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes, has won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books. I haven’t read it, nor is its galleys sitting atop a stack of books I hope to get to. But it does look awfully good, and the Royal Society obviously agrees…Any Loom readers have a review to offer?

Update: I should really have entitled this, Congratulations, Richard Holmes. Books don’t appreciate good wishes very much.

0 thoughts on “Congratulations to the Age of Wonder [Book Preview]

  1. The book is indeed excellent as I am currently finding out. In rousing, meticulously detailed and inspiring paragraphs Holmes narrates the adventures and heroic passion of key Edwardian scientists and poets. Especially fascinating are descriptions of Joseph Banks’s trip to Tahiti and the wondrous spectacles he saw there, William Herschel’s obssesion with astronomy, French balloonists’ pioneering efforts to soar into the skies and Humphry Davy’s curious experiments with laughing gas. These stories are accompanied by stories about poets who were deeply interested in science and collaborated with scientists.

    The Age of Wonder is a rare volume that evokes a wonderful lost time and makes you yearn for it. I could not help but read the book wistfully. Sparkling, richly detailed and beautifully narrated, this is definitely a must have. The history of science at its best.

  2. Update: I should really have entitled this, Congratulations, Richard Holmes. Books don’t appreciate good wishes very much.

    True. They much prefer being fondled… 🙂


  3. I highly recommend it – it’s one of the best science books I’ve read all year. I purchased it with the idea of reading it quickly and reviewing it on my blog. But instead of being a quick read, I found that this is a book you have to savor, reading the Romantic poems and scientific tracts referenced as you go along. The writing style and the subject matter are excellent, and I’ve now been inspired by a set of scientists I previously knew almost nothing about.

    It’s easy to stereotype the Romantics as anti-science, reveling in symbols and mysticism and reacting against Enlightenment rationalism. Holmes shows that this is wrong – the great British Romantic poets (this book is almost exclusively about the British) hung around the great scientists of the day, and were very interested in science. And many of the great scientists of the era had strong interests in the arts.

  4. Holmes is a great literary biographer and has chosen to use his techniques to present a series of mini-biographies of British scientists from the period of about 1765 to 1830. He does a great job of weaving themes and lives. For example, he begins with an account of Joseph Banks, the naturalist on the first of Captain Cook’s voyages to the Pacific. Banks goes on to become a longtime president of the Royal Society and figures in story after story. The themes of discovery and wonder dominate. Normally the period is not thought of as much of a heroic one in science history, but it was one where interest in science moved from the elites to the middle classes. Turning these separate bios into a coherent sense of an era was quite an achievement, but the book is not a page turner. The flavor is perhaps most striking in the chapter on Frankenstein, which is not about a scientist at all, but the growing popular reaction to science. The analysis is literary rather than scientific. But I always love to see past achievers, like Humphrey Davy, get a chance at the spotlight.

  5. Bought the kindle (actually, iphone) version and began to read it last night. Seems terrific. I’m also getting used to the iphone/kindle experience.

    A day or two ago Stanley Fish wrote a silly opinion piece in the NY Times, where he criticizes “curiosity”, as a stand-in for science. Fish uses Frankenstein and Faust as examples of curiosity (science) gone awry. Describing modern man in a critical tone he says “Curiosity … is their God” —meaning there is no room left for the real thing.

    Its a pleasure to read this romantic corrective.

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