Monday, July 27, 2009

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson

In early January of this year I was listening to the local Public Radio Station and I heard an interview hosted by Michael Krasny on his Forum program. He was interviewing Steven Johnson, the author of a book published last year entitled The Invention of Air.  It was a very interesting interview and someone mentioned that Johnson would be at the Book Passage book store in Corte Madera, CA on Saturday, January 17.  I decided to go even though I hadn't read his book yet. 

There have been a host of books about Joseph Priestley written recently, Johnson's being one of the latest. My first inclination upon hearing the interview was that this particular book, while intended primarily for the lay reader unfamiliar with Priestley, would step through the usual biographical milestones of his life and his contributions to humankind and be pretty humdrum.  I did find the talk was interesting. 

However, when I went to the talk at Book Passage I heard a more expanded discussion of his book and had ample time to chat with Mr. Johnson afterwards.  We agreed to get together sometime in New York, since he lives in Brooklyn and I am frequently in Manhattan. Even though I have been to New York three times since, I haven't had an opportunity to see him there yet. Maybe on the next trip.

After attending the talk, I actually read his book.  I found it a good read and quite refreshing. He did not, as I had previously suspected, step through the usual biographical material. Instead, he tried to capture the essence of that period of history in England, and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. He brought forward a number of very interesting observations, including: 
Priestley's penchant for openness by sharing the information he had discerned. He had, after all, written over 150 books on such varied topics as electricity, chemistry, Christianity, education, language, politics, etc.
The role of the coffee houses in the second half of 18th century London -- an 18th century form of social networking, so to speak, where he met with the likes of Benjamin Franklin and the other "Honest Whigs". 

When I say he did not go through the usual biography, there were, of course, the sprinklings here and there of tried and true lines about Priestley's accomplishments for sure, but not laden like many of the other Priestley books. There was just enough for the uninitiated to want to go out and get a real biography to read.

I notice that this book seems to have gotten some real traction of late. I hope it does well and "enlightens" the general public about this great and important historic individual who has, for all intents, been forgotten by the mainstream of our culture.  Actually, never known by the mainstream of our culture. 

No comments:

Post a Comment