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Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

3.69 of 5 stars 3.69  ·  rating details  ·  251 ratings  ·  57 reviews
Brilliant, reminiscent of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift in its reach and of Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time in its haunting evocation of human lives, offers a sweeping view of a surprisingly revealing aspect of human history—from the stone lamps of the Pleistocene to the LEDs embedded in fabrics of the future.


Brox plumbs the class implications of light—who had it, who didn’t—th
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Hardcover, 368 pages
Published July 8th 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 1st 2010)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 843)
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Melody
Interesting and comprehensive. It dragged in portions, loaded down with information, lumbering along. I learned a lot though. My favorite parts were the ancient times, the TVA electrification and the future of lighting. Some of it was familiar already- the disaster that lighting has caused among migratory birds, nesting turtles and astronomers- but the new information was fascinating.
Cordelia
I was reading this at the same time as "The Zookeeper's Wife", which took a fascinating story and turned it into an unreadable book. "Brilliant", by contrast, took a mundane subject and turned it into a fascinating book. My time reading it was filled with discovery and enlightenment. One of those books I borrowed to read but now want to own.
Ilsa Bick
It would NEVER have occurred to me to pick this up, but am I glad I did. Have you ever noticed how PANICKED people get when the lights go out? Brox has, and her points about how darkness was not as feared way back as it is now as well as concerns about the centralization of both the delivery of fuel (think gas works or electrical grids) and the loss of autonomy when such fuels were no longer available (or the delivery interrupted) was just fascinating. Light, as it happens, was for the wealthy b ...more
Clark Hays
Note: This review also appears on Amazon.

Shines a light down many previously darkened paths

In a poetic, lyrical style mixed with equal parts journalistic reporting and historical research, Brox does a nice job of capturing a shadowy subject -- artificial light, what it has given us and what it has taken away.

From miners using the purifying flesh of luminescent fish to Inuits with seal blubber candles made of moss and stone, from seamstresses with tallow candles magnified through water lenses to
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Elisha Condie
A book like this that takes something from my everyday life I don't think about very much and explains how it has evolved and helps me see it in a totally different way is a good book.

Brox lays out the chronology of artificial light since the first caveman painted on the walls of Lascaux Cave in France. She describes so vividly how feeble the light from old tallow candles was, and how even as the candles got better they were still so much work to maintain -something I truly had never ever rea
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Lina Baker
I have to admit disappointment in this book. While aspects of it were interesting and engaging, I found it on the whole to lack focus and direction, and most importantly of all, to not really be about the history of light.

I had high hopes.
As an Interior Designer, my work relies heavily on the use of light, and as such I have learned fascinating things about it over the years: why HID lamps are used in conjunction with green signs on the highway, the methods of making a space illuminated to crea
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Katherine Cowley
Brilliant describes the amazing and often surprising journey from fire to candle to oil lamp to gas lighting to electric light; brilliant also describes this book and its author. This book is a mix of history, science, cultural analysis, literary quotes, newspaper clippings, and insightful analysis into how light has changed, why we've demanded it change, and how light has changed us as humans.

Brox takes us in scene to various settings. For example, in Medieval Europe in order to enforce the cu
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Michelle Caron
Jane Brox's book is an excellent and brief history of light as we have created it. It reads faster than its 300 pages, and is filled with snapshots of the fascinating men (alas, it's all men) who pushed forward the quality and demand for light. Argand, Fresnel, Faraday, Edison and Tesla all contribute to the steps forward in illumination.

This book is certainly not an exhaustive study, and is not meant to be. The people, science and advances are all given a couple of pages, or perhaps a chapter
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Andrei
368 pg. nonfiction
This book is the story of how we made and the problems with artificial light. The history of light isn't a subject we think about when we flick the switch and stare in depth at a light bulb. We don't think about how we used to not be able to see our hands in front of our faces on a moonless night and when light pollution first started to brighten the skies at night. We normally look at a flourescent light bulb and think about our budget but to all the generations working hard
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Bookmarks Magazine
Brox's intriguing blend of science, cultural analysis, and social history drew diverse reactions from critics. While the Boston Globe and the Washington Post would have preferred a tightened focus on technology, others applauded her ability to illuminate the relationships between and interdependence of culture, politics, economics, and science. Brox may not be an authority on such matters, but whatever she lacks in expertise, she makes up in enthusiasm and rigorous research. Her elegant writing, ...more
Anna White
Loved this book. Brox tells a lovely story that serves to disturb our familiarity with lighting in a delightful way--the ordinary becomes new and remarkable again. This is an engaging balance of evocative historical detail and millennia-spanning breadth, and Brox's own presence in the narrative is properly limited so as to allow the events to stand alone. I have but one complaint, and it is that the book is dreadfully citation-sparse; only direct quotations are cited, leaving many stretches of g ...more
Laura
This was a really interesting book about something we pretty much take for granted: artificial light. Brox takes us back to the Stone Age discovery of how to harness fire. After that, light was pretty much unchanged until the 18th century when one after another, brighter and brighter sources of light, from whale oil to kerosene to gaslight, changed the way humans related to the night. After detailing the history of how we harnessed electricity for lighting, Brox turns to our dependence on electr ...more
Pat
I really liked this book. The story of the evolution of artificial light told in language a layman can understand, but never condescending. I found the author's discussion of the social, political and economic ramifications of the development of artificial light through the centuries to be particularly interesting. I would have given this book 5 stars but for one thing: the book and the subject cries out for illustrations and photographs, but they are nowhere to be found. I realize that the incl ...more
Richard
This is one of the most informative and fascinating books I've ever read. The author is very talented and obviously did a lot of research for this book. It not only gives an in-depth history of artificial light of every kind (Many I didn't even know ever existed). But it also ties light into many different facets of our lives. There is a great deal of history learned from reading this book that you won't likely learn anywhere else. Exciting and interesting facts about our ancestors and things ab ...more
BookBrowse
Brilliant is more than an eloquent and gorgeous history of artificial light; it is a survey of profound experiences long lost to the human senses, imagination and heart. Brox reveals how light and darkness create intimacy and isolation, mark periods of rest, work and dreaming, and she demonstrates how light divorces us from and damages the natural world. All students of literature, history and art should read Brilliant; anyone interested in what it means to be human should read it, too. (Reviewe ...more
Jan
An engaging history of how the availability of ever more artificial light has changed our world over the centureis, from stone lamps in prehistoric caves to contemporary light-emitting diodes (LED's). No simpleminded technological determinist, Brox appreciates how culture and technology have affected each other at every stage of our quest for light, from the caves of prehistoric French caves, medieval and early modern villages, whaling and other ships, industrializing cities, Chicago's White Ciu ...more
Anne Dunham
An illuminating read. Not a page turner, but a book to read slowly and ponder the amazing differences between my life and the lives of those who lived only a scant one or two hundred years ago. I will never again flip on a switch cavalierly. And I will be careful to switch it off again with the hope that someday we can all see the stars that once were.

2/23/12 Interesting article on sleep that sheds light on our sleep patterns and the effect nighttime lighting has made on our lives. "The myth of
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Talldarknweirdo
A reader of omnidirectional curiosity will find this work interesting, but it indulges too many irrelevant detours into tangentially related topics (Notably whaling and electrical distribution) to qualify as a history of artificial light. It skips or glosses over many important developments, while lavishing attention on extraneous material. Lots of good material here, and worth the read but I'm afraid a truly definitive history of artificial light has still not been written.
Jessica
I am perhaps overly critical of this work, as I felt it was just too heavy on reciting other's original research. In fact, I'm a little suspicious of her over reliance on Wolfgang Schivelbusch's work; while I've not read his work, his work on the history of light seems awfully prevalent in her citations.

The prose was well written, and as popular history, it was okay, but I didn't really encounter anything new or enlightening outside of the eloquent discussion of Lasceaux.
Robin
Thinking about looking for places to see the Milky Way again...places to see the Aurora Borealis again...Feeling flooded with light. Just the fact that readily available light is only a 500 year old event set me to thinking about the thousands of years of human life before electricity. Fascinating to think about the caves at Lascaux and what it would be like to see it by the flickering light of a tiny flame, one small piece at a time.
Margaret Haerens
An informative and well-paced book on the evolution of artificial light, from the use of animal fat to incandescent light and beyond. Knox excels on examining the social and cultural changes brought about new discoveries and spread of electric lights, especially in rural areas. Another intriguing area of discussion in the book is how artificial lighting has impacted our bodies and own own natural rhythms. Very thought-provoking material.
Debbie
"Brilliant" was an interesting look at the evolution of light. The research was strong, but the writing was quite inconsistent with moments of poetic lyricism interspersed with poorly told stories and snippets if weakly veiled propaganda. I don't think I would read another book by this author, but I would consider recommending this book to someone with a deep interest in the subject. Overall, my response to the book us "meh."
Ann
A very well-written look at something most of us take for granted. This is not a dry, boring history of electric lighting. This is a book about people and their real lives and how "modern" civilization has come to have electric lights .. and what that means to us and to plants and animals around us. I liked this book very much, and I now look at how I use electricity, and how I sleep, VERY differently.
Carl
A sus-subtitle for the book should be A Social History of Illumination. A lot about how people made light, used it and how it affected their lives, but not many details on the technical aspects of creating light. I was looking for a more scientifically oriented discussion and one that looks at the future of incandescent, fluorescent, LED, and OLED lighting and the trade-offs to be faced.
Lori Paximadis
One of my favorite kinds of histories: one that shows me connections I had never thought to consider before. I loved this well-researched and well-written exploration of how artificial light has affected the development of society.

Again, however, I find myself wishing for a 1-10 rating scale. Four stars seems stingy, but five stars isn't quite right, either. This is a solid 9/10.
Tracey
So enLIGHTening! [couldn't resist] This book was really interesting - the exploration of artificial light and its impact on the world (light pollution, sleep cycles, social norms, etc.) was intriguing. It also made me realize how much more romantic Vernon's engagement present of an Aladdin lamp to Mary was. And, I have a whole new appreciation for candles.
Lesa
Historical non-fiction loosely based on how humankind has been affected (and transformed) by light; from flame to LED bulbs. Well written, engaging.
Deanna
Although very informative, this book was extremely hard to read. Everyone in our book group had a hard time just even getting into it, not to mention finishing it. While the stories in the book were interesting, it read way too much like a text book. So unless you are a history buff or writing a report on artificial light, it might not be worth your time.
Aviva
Mar 14, 2011 Aviva added it
Shelves: abandoned
I got about a quarter of the way through. It was interesting, but apparently not as interesting as so many other books that I picked up and finished in the time I read a fraction of this one. I'm sure it's a fault in me, not the book. I seem to have a hard time finishing non-fiction books unless they read like fiction or are a particular interest of mine.
Anne
I have too many other books to read to suffer through this. I was reeled in by the premise (history of artificial light!) but was turned off by the excessive history (I wanted more science). The author included tons of quotes from various historical peoples (famous and otherwise) and I'm just not into that. Quote heavy + science light = moving on!!
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JANE BROX is the author of Clearing Land, Five Thousand Days Like This One, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Here and Nowhere Else, which received the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. She lives in Maine"
More about Jane Brox...
Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm

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“To reach the farthest chamber of Lascaux, it's likely a man had to snuff out his light, lower himself down a shaft with a rope made of twisted fibers, and then rekindle his lamp in the dark so as to draw the woolly rhinoceros, the half horse, and the raging bison there. A long spear transfixes that bison, and entrails pour from its side. Beneath its front hooves lies the one painted man in all of Lascaux: prone, spindly wounded, disguised behind a bird mask. And below him, until its discovery in 196o, lay a spoon-shaped lamp carved of red sandstone ... Hold it again as it once was held, and the animals will emerge out of darkness as you pass. Nothing stays still. Shadows nestle in the cavities; a flicker of light across pale protruding rock turns a hoof or raises a head. One shape recedes as another emerges, and everything lingers in the imagination.” 3 likes
“Time and task were both disorienting, for if you were to remove everything from our lives that depends on electricity to function, homes and offices would become no more than the chambers and passages of limestone caves- simple shelter from wind and rain, far less useful than the first homes at Plymouth Plantation or a wigwam. No way to keep out cold, or heat, for long. No way to preserve food, or to cook it. The things that define us, quiet as rock outcrops - the dumb screens and dials, the senseless clicks of on/off switches- without their purpose, they lose the measure of their beauty and we are left alone in the dark with countless useless things.” 2 likes
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