A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change
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A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change

3.47 of 5 stars 3.47  ·  rating details  ·  110 ratings  ·  23 reviews
The "fascinating" (The New Yorker) story of Athanasius Kircher, the eccentric scholar-inventor who was either a great genius or a crackpot... or a bit of both.

The interests of Athanasius Kircher, the legendary seventeenth-century priest-scientist, knew no bounds. From optics to music to magnetism to medicine, he offered up inventions and theories for everything, and they m...more
Hardcover, 273 pages
Published November 8th 2012 by Riverhead Hardcover
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Apr 03, 2013 David rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to David by: John Glassie
Shelves: biography, history
This book is an easy-to-read, entertaining biography of Athanasius Kircher. Kircher was a 17th-century Jesuit priest who was truly a "Renaissance Man". He studied all different subjects, and wrote a large number of hefty books on a wide range of subjects, including magnetism, music, optics, medicine, geology, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and China. He made several inventions, and was perhaps the first person to use a microscope to study microbes.

Kircher had a huge influence on culture and science dur...more
Sara Van Dyck
John Glassie’s biography of seventeenth-century thinker Athanasius Kircher takes us to a time when knowledge, religion, and the occult were closely entwined. It’s hard to imagine the breadth of Kircher’s investigations. He translated Egyptian hieroglyphics, viewed blood cells through an early microscope, theorized that medicines worked through magnetic action, established a famous museum, demonstrated that a sunflower seed could act like a clock…and much, more more.
Well, some of this was so. Gl...more
I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

John Glassie has written a fascinating biography of one of histories forgotten early "natural philosophers." Father Athanasius Kircher was a Jesuit priest more interested in investigating the wonders of Nature than in the pursuit of, what at the time (1602-1680) would have been the normal function of one of his Order: the conversion of heathens to the One True Faith. Kircher had a boundless curiosity in all phenomena and investigated just about everything...more
Nicholas Gresens
A fun, readable book about one the most brilliant, eclectic, and perhaps fraudulent men ever to grace the Earth. In an age where people can become famous simply for acting the part of a celebrity on a television show, it is nice to know that even in the intellectual maelstrom of the 17th century such people could arise. This judgement of Athenasius Kircher, however, may be a bit unfair. Although Kircher's main purpose in life seems to have to become famous, this German Jesuit, who dabbled in suc...more
Glassie uses the story of Athanasius Kircher to tell the story of the seventeenth century, and does it with a lot of verve and (by the standards of the popular history books I've read) sophistication. Kircher was both a prodigious intellectual and a charlatan, by turns a skeptic and an undisciplined speculator, a loyal Jesuit keeping in line following the Galileo Affair and a free thinker. Above all, he was a humanist -- which is to say egoist, and in that fully modern -- careful to leave future...more
Clark Maddux
A first rate example of how to write a popular book about a little known person. Well worth the read for what it tells about the milieu out of which contemporary science emerged. Someone needs to do this for Samuel Bochart.
The name Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest born in Germany, may not necessarily ring any bells. However, Kircher was an inventor, historian, philosopher, author, and scientist (he coined the term “electromagnetism”) during the 17th century. John Glassie explores this wondrous man in “A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change”.

“A Man of Misconceptions” instantly hits the reader with a vibrant, colorful, and energetic portrait of Kircher. The pace is steady and yet ex...more
Douglas Dalrymple
Athanasius Kircher was a seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath and author of incredible ambition, productivity, and influence. He had detractors in his own day but he’s presently remembered – if remembered at all – for being remarkably wrong about a great many things.

He was wrong, for example, about being able to read hieroglyphics, the spontaneous generation of worms and rats, the antiquity and historicity of Hermes Trismegistus, the earth being hollow and filled with rivers of fire, and the hel...more
Mar 23, 2013 max rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: library
John Glassie is no scientist, but that may make his book more potent to those unaccustomed to looking at the world from a behind the lens of a microscope. His subject, Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680), is a titanic of prescientific thinking, a quintessence of the (unintentionally) hilarious limits of any knowledge not based upon independently verifiable data. To paraphrase Glassie, Kircher, by being fantastically wrong on practically every serious problem he attempted t...more
The 17th century may have been the beginning of the Modern era, but that transition was not without considerable struggle. Galileo figured out how the Earth rotated around the sun, and was convicted of heresy and placed under house arrest. "Science" as we understand it was as much speculation as research. Witch burnings were the order of the day. into this conflicted time comes Father Athanasius Kircher of the Company of Jesus, and he soon becomes one of the most published authors of his day. Th...more
A Man of Misconceptions took me to the cozy interconnected world of 17th century of intellectual Europe. But can there even be said to be such a thing as an "intellectual" Europe, when even luminaries such as Rene Descartes pondered the question of whether a sunflower seed could power a clock because of its tendency to turn toward the sun? Athanasius Kircher was one of history's greatest social climbers. He also possessed boundless curiosity, enormous intelligence, exceptional self-regard and as...more
The book provided wonderful insight into the early modern scientific era, when thinkers were moving from Aristotelian-based approaches to science to more empirical methods. While Kircher perhaps represents a strange and winding back road off the great highway of knowledge, Glassie's biography wonderfully explained the intellectual world in which Kircher worked. And while many of Kircher's ideas were zany (e.g., the cat organ and that infamous sunflower seed), his books inspired a generation of g...more
This is a fascinating and enjoyable read. It describes the life, times, and efforts of avJesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher. He lived through the early to middle 17th century, through the many religious wars, including the Thirty Years War that destroyed his German heartland. Kircher mastered many languages and made his career around interpreting hieroglyphs on Egyptian obelisks. He never had a clue what they said, but made up stuff he thought was a greater truth than the facts. He was fasci...more
Dan Creighton
One man's laudable quest to know everything, and how, by our lights he got almost everything comically wrong. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is how it portrays a world that seems modern - plagiarists, fame-seeking empty vessels, biting satire, even a form of social media - and totally alien. Although perhaps the seemingly alien sports of Jew and prostitute racing find an analog on the scummier shores of reality tv.
Crazy or brilliant? Kook or erudite? From what I've read from this book, the answer to the identity of Athanasius Kircher is "yes". From Germany to France and from Italy to Egypt, this man that I'd never heard of was at the forefront of the 17th century revolution in the acquisition of knowledge about the natural world.

Kircher was very interesting even though he was a bit of a nutter. I'm still trying to get through his book on volcanoes and now I want to look up some of his other books that I didn't know existed until I read this. A great bio. that is probably unbiased compared to his autobio.
Fred Fisher
3.5 stars would be fairer. Interesting book about someone I had never heard of. Kircher, Athanasius, 1602-1680. This bio of a prolific writer covers an important time in history when many older 'givens' were being challenged by many. Kircher got a lot of information wrong, at least looking at it from a 21st Century perspective, but was influential on many leaders of government, church and science of his time. He was also ridiculed by many of them for his conclusions. Kircher wrote on many differ...more
Stephanie Davis
Really interesting!
This book was a slow-go for me. Let me say at the start, though, that was not the fault of John Glassie. His writing is smooth and he does a competent job of fleshing out Kircher’s life and career.

My problem was the subject. I wasn’t far into the book before I decided Kircher was a mix of charlatan and buffoon, as it appears many of his contemporaries saw him—Peiresc, Descartes and Redi among them. And yet he obviously had a remarkable mind and was capable of grasping finite principles which sci...more
A truly interesting historical character, Kircher is reduced to a cartoon by an author hell-bent on making sure the reader understands Kircher was often wrong. And arrogant. And a con-man. And unequal to the intellects of his time. Etc. Etc...

The story of this man practically tells itself, a curious (and yes flawed) man in a time of magnificent change in western culture and history. But here he is portrayed as a glory-seeking Forrest Gump. In the process of focusing on his myriad intellectual an...more
Overall a good read; informative, sometimes funny, and very enjoyable. But, I'll be honest, I can't decide if Kircher is actually a charlatan or a legitimate scientific ground-breaker.

(view spoiler)
The history and the people surrounding Kircher are more interesting than the Subject of the book. While a talented linguist, and a curious mind, most of his energy was completely misdirected. Most of his work was subjective, unscientific, egotistical, and often plagiarized. He may of had a keen mind, but his ego prevented him from seeing the actual strides by the giants of his day.
Jackie Jacobsen
It was ok - it was billed as funny and endearing, but I didn't find it to be all that funny. What was interesting was how the author explained how the Age of Reason came to be, and how erratic and non-linear that process was. I wish there had been more detail about historical events - but it was a science book, after all...
Actually a good read about the dawn of science and premodern knowledge. Good endnotes and well written.
Daniel Farabaugh
The author does a good job of showing how the subject of this book straddled the modern and ancient worlds. This was any unnecessary attempts to justify his work but instead keeps them in his time.
Lauren Albert
This was interesting though I sometimes found the author's sarcasm annoying. But he clearly appreciates Kircher even if he finds him ridiculous at times. I can appreciate the voraciousness of his appetite for knowledge.
Probably more a statement on me and my state of mind than the book itself. The blurb is fascinating and I can see by the reviews that the gentleman in question was one of great interest. I just couldn't get into it, personally.
Robert Hudder
It was a good book about an odd time in history between the movement from the middle ages to the scientific revolution. Fun for someone who likes history of science but I am not sure it is engaging enough for someone who doesn't.
Katelis Viglas
I love Athanasius Kircher. This book is an excellent intellectual biography of the good Jesuit. Highly recommended.
Tamara marked it as to-read
Jul 19, 2014
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I'm the author of a book about a colorful but largely forgotten seventeenth-century scholar and priest named Athanasius Kircher. It's called A Man of Misconceptions. It was first published by Riverhead Books in November of 2012, and came out in paperback in late 2013.

I've been a contributing editor for The New York Times Magazine and have written for many publications including The Believer, The N...more
More about John Glassie...
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