12 February 2009

A Comet in the System

I find myself somewhat discombobulated this morning as for the second day in a row the Very Understanding Girlfriend is working from home, compiling her field notes and writing up a lengthy report. This means that I am banished* from the rather small office that we both share and find myself without recourse to my usual distractions, and have thus spent the last day or so catching up on a few books that I started earlier in the year but somehow got distracted along the way or lost the will to finish.

One of the theoretical joys of being underemployed is having a vast expanse of time to devote to the many pursuits oft neglected during the 60-hour work weeks that had become the norm of my office-bound existence. After much rigorous investigation I have found this theory fatally flawed, unable to bare the strain of my not inconsequential lack of motivation, and thus in the seven weeks to date of this fine and magnificent new year I had barely managed to finish even three books, though had started at least ten.

As I have mentioned on a number of previous occasions, my reading habits have a tendency to raise my heckles and stoke the wrath of my ire, and thus one of my resolutions for this new year was to try and read less on the subject of neocon skulduggery and the antics of fellow ne'er-do-wells and try and broaden my literary horizons to include works of a more positive and uplifting oeuvre. Given that today would have been the 200th Birthday of Charles Darwin, I decided to enter into the spirit of scientific enquiry this month and dip my metaphorical toe once more into the world of popular science.

Thus I found myself yesterday immersed in the landscape of late 18th century scientific, religious and political artifice via Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air", originally recommended by Seed Magazine as one of the top books of 2008**. The book is a light examination of the life of Joseph Priestly, inventor of soda water, a discoverer of Oxygen, early advocate of Unitarianism and friend to Erasmus Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In fact it was through the correspondence between Jefferson and Adams that I first heard of Priestly, and although I had forsworn political angst in my New Year's reading list, I felt that a little 18th Century revolutionary discourse couldn't really hurt anyone*** and dove right in.

Unfortunately the book has left me with more than a little sense of "Meh!".

It isn't a biography, it isn't a rigorous historical account, it isn't even an exploration of either the political, scientific or religious milieu of turn of Revolutionary America or its contemporaneous English landscape, rather it unfortunately dips its toes into many waters without delving deep enough to be truly satisfying. It also suffers from the biases of the author, a dot.com entrepreneur, who frames his account as a defence of open source and networking/collaboration and a criticism of the recent Republican war on science****, both of which are valid positions but will date the book quite quickly.

One area that Johnson does highlight quite effectively is the demise of the multidisciplinary enthusiast over the last 200 years. Priestly was a jack-of-all trades; a gentleman scientist, Unitarian minister and political agitator, who made significant contributions to all three fields outside the confines of the university, academy or body corporate. Today it is almost impossible to think of anyone person that straddles all three disciplines, and in fact the relationship between Theology, Politics and Science is more usually scene as combinations of antithetical elements, theology and politics vs science, science and politics vs theology etc.

It is also quite difficult to imagine a major scientist or academic (and Preistly was arguably at times the leading scientist of his day) operating today independently of any institute, and having their work greeted with anything less than scorn or incredulity. Priestly, like many of the finest minds of his generation, was fortunate enough to have an occupation that allowed ample leisure time; while many of his contemporaries were born into wealth, he was a minister with a small and undemanding congregation, and at times a private tutor. Combined with a supplemental income donated by some of his wealthier associates he was able to devote himself to constant learning and experimentation. He shared his ideas freely with his circle of friends over coffee, dinner and through regular correspondence, and while Johnson presents his life through a heavily tinted lens it is difficult not to see Priestly as a proto-blogger, with a passion for many subjects and a willingness to comment on them all.

Given all this, and my own background as a theologian who has spent the last twelve years working in the tech-industry, now operating as a political consultant, one would imagine that the book would speak to me more. And I wanted it to inspire me, I really did, but uneven pacing, artistic licence taken to far when filling in areas that are missing historical corroboration, and at times a highly frustrating style of prose, I walked away slightly disappointed by what I felt was too superficial a treatment of a fascinating subject.

Hopefully today's choice of "This is Your Brain on Music" will frustrate me less, and leave me with something positive to show for day two of my semi-voluntary sabbatical from the happy distractions of my normal routine.

Oh, and Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

* In all fairness this is an entirely self-imposed exile, for she would be quite happy for me to work away quietly in the background. However though she may be the sun around which I orbit I find the constant stream of exclamations and exasperations that explode from her corner of the room, fully formed and armed Athena-like erupting from the head of Zeus, to be more than a little unnerving. My sojourn in Elba is a minor inconvenience compared to the weathering the tempest of the alternative.

** I already had "The Endless City", picked up "The Dominant Animal" by the Ehrlich's, and preorderd Pollan's "Defence of Food" and Levitin's"The World in Six Songs".

*** except possibly the 18th century political establishment.

**** The only war the Bush administration actually came close to winning

Seed top book picks for 2008
Steven Johnson - 'The Invention of Air'
Steven Johnson's blog
Daniel Levitin - 'This is Your Brain on Music'



At 6:57 pm, Blogger tpy said...

Priestly? Now you're moving towards *my* areas of expertise ... or (more accurately) areas of more capable bluffing. (The Priestly-Reid debate over free will echoes the Clarke-Collins controversy, which is itself a rehashing of the Bramhall-Hobbes debate. It seems the same issue of free will, accompanied by worries over moral responsibility and hence the future of civilization and political organization, was rehashed every 50 years in England for a while.)

At 7:33 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

Well bluffed, good sir.

And yet Johnson's book makes no reference to such a debate. It does touch on Priestly's "History of the Corruptions of Christianity", both as the cause of his self-imposed exile from England and as the source of Thomas Jefferson's rekindled faith, and that's about it on the religion side. His invention of soda water gets more column inches.

But unfortunately such is always a theologian's lot in life.

At 5:32 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

well...to be fair soda water is _mostly_ useless...I can't really say I approve of diluting alcohol unnecessarily :D

I think you'll definitely get a kick outta 'This is your brain..", lots of great examples of familiar (and good!) songs to illustrate points and theories. You'll probably want iTunes open beside ya while yer reading it!


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