Meg's Reviews > The Invention of Air

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
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's review
Mar 13, 2009

liked it
bookshelves: science, nonfiction, biography, history-club
Read in March, 2009

This is definitely a three-and-a-half-er.

I feel sort of bad not liking this book that much. It starts off pretty strongly, with SBJ spinning stitches and webs all around Joseph Priestley until you're like, holy crap! This guy is going to be a rockstar! I can't wait to read all about the amazing things he did! And then it's almost like the hype overwhelms the man? Because it's not to say that Priestley shouldn't have more name recognition; clearly the guy held his own. And actually SBJ paints Priestley as sort of freaking adorable, even late in life when he was grumping around Pennsylvania writing angry pamphlets about Christianity and also going around believing that Revelations was being borne out amidst the French Revolution. It's just that eventually, the events-telling part of this book kind of gets a backseat to all of SBJ's passionate overconvincing. ("YOU are Joseph Priestley: YOU ARE THERE!")

For instance, I thought the bit about the Birmingham Riots was stupidly interesting, a crazy moment that defines its own context perfectly. But it's just a couple of pages, almost nothing compared to the pages spent on defining Priestley's role as a Tommy Kuhn-style paradigm shifter. And honestly, that's okay! That's basically what SBJ likes to write about! He likes to forge links that you never thought of before, and when he nails one it is totally exciting. Except in this case, I kept wishing I was just reading a good quality biography of Priestley. And I wasn't.

So maybe it's an issue with my expectations; maybe I just should have perused a few encyclopedia entries on Priestley before I picked up this book. Probably then I would have been less annoyed with all of the paragraphs that ended with ominous Next Time On Joseph Priestley..., sentences that would go, "Of course, the mint experiments were nothing compared to the OTHER EXPERIMENTS that would CHANGE HIS LIFE...FOREVER." Because those are the kind of sentences that are irritating if you know zip about the subject, you're left thinking, "oh hell just TELL ME RIGHT NOW! what the other experiments are!" But if you already know, then you're probably reading that bit like "oh hell yeah that's true! good point!"

Also there is some depressing and possibly half-baked stuff in the last few pages about how being a radical in today's world means you have a gloom-and-doom worldview, which, I don't know. I feel like that's another argument, not something to lace into your closing statement.

Reading a SBJ book always makes me feel smarter, though.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Gemma (new)

Gemma Hey, will you guide me? I want to read Steven Johnson, but I don't know where to begin. Suggestions?

message 2: by Meg (new) - rated it 3 stars

Meg Mind Wide Open! It's all about your brain. Basically he talks about modern neuroscience and he uses himself as a test subject, so it's obviously very self-referential but I personally think he does a great job keeping the balance.

Also I think Emergence would be up your alley.

I think you'll really enjoy him, and you'll probably squeeze like five more science plays out of it!

message 3: by Lizzie (new) - added it

Lizzie I feel all once-burned with The Ghost Map, like this one would probably make me feel the exact same way that book did (which is the exact same way this one made you feel!). But how come all of SBJ's books sound like books I can't NOT READ?? ARGH CURSE YOU, AND YOUR AWESOME IDEAS, JOHNSON!

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