I almost didn’t write this review. I said to myself, “Albert you reviewed a non-fiction book two weeks ago. A biography of Joseph Priestley hardly fits under your “bizzaro” designation does it? Why not just give it up and write another film review? I know you’ve been itching to talk about Primer.”
And all of those are good arguments. But to be honest…I love this book.
Because even though at it’s heart it’s a biography of Joseph Priestly in reality The Invention of Air is a book that touches on topics as diverse as philosophy, science, religion, politics, and history.
The fundamental question of this book, and the thing that made it truly fascinating to me was, What is at the core of greatness? Is it personal genius? Some kind of intelectual zeitgeist? Socioeconomic factors? Or could it be that it is a combination of all these things?
Joseph Priestly was a scientist who flourished in the era leading up to the Revolutionary War. He discovered that plants produce oxygen, as well as discovering oxygen itself. But he was also much more than this. He was a dissenting minister who preached radical doctrines which brought the ire of the Church of England down on his head. He was a political activist who argued strongly for America’s right to be an independent nation, and eventually fled there when his radical views sparked outrage in England.
But as I said, this book goes beyond simply recounting the evens of Priestly’s life, and delves deep into the world that Priestly lived in. It goes to great lengths to help us understand the forces that helped to bring that world (and by extension, Priestly himself) to into being. Steven Johnson creates a fascinating framework for history stepping far back and envisioning world events as nothing more than the transfer of energy. The energy bound up in England’s shallow coal deposits, the energy of the Gulf stream bringing warmth to the British Isles, all of these and more conspiring together to create an environment where knowledge and intellectual passion could finally blossom in the age known as the Enlightenment. Reading this book, one comes to understand that the individuals we focus on in our historical texts are simply a small part of a much larger movement, shining examples of an entire world as it changes.
I was also fascinated by how studying Priestly’s life unveiled the deeper facts of America’s founding. From Franklin’s reluctance to go to war to the role that gunpowder from the French played in the American victory, viewing history through the lens of one man’s life brings out so many little details that seem to get lost in the overview historical accounts we’ve all learned in school.
And a deeper knowledge of history is invaluable to understanding the present. Priestly’s involvement with the Alien and Sedition Acts directly parallels the kinds of arguments Americans are still having today over detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely. Seeing similar events through the perspective of history helps to put political and constitutional debates today in better context. Despite the doomers and the gloomers the truth is that from the very beginning our republic has had to face upheaval and uncertainty, and despite many the many pitfalls and setbacks, we’ve managed to pull through.
And if for no other reason than to learn that lesson, The Invention of Air is well worth reading.
Aaaand I’m still shilling for my Old Yeller meets Night of the Living Dead novella called A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw. If you don’t have a Kindle there are now multiple formats including but not limited to EPUB PDF and TXT available at Smashwords. Do check it out if you haven’t already.