Meri's Reviews > The Invention of Air

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
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's review
Jun 16, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: history, biography-memoir, united-states, lifelong-learners

Joseph Priestly is not widely recognized, but may as well have been a (British) founding father. A product of a remarkable age, Priestly produced a string of innovations in science, religion, and politics. He was eventually exiled from England for his agnostic views, but he died a respected man in a young United States.

In this book, Johnson has taken an interesting figure and turned him into a metaphor for explosions of progress (like the Age of Enlightenment) and how seemingly separate disciplines can all advance rapidly at once. He talks about change and how we must be prepared to redefine our values, practices, or even definitions of reality to truly move forward as a society. Though the New York Times gripes that this is clearly not a biography, I won't fault Johnson for his digressions into the history of ideas, coffeehouse culture, and the connection between the fossil fuels that facilitate the destruction of our ecosystem and the discovery of said ecosystem thanks to the leisure time afforded us by fossil fuels. After all, if anything is to be learned from Priestly's practice of experimenting aimlessly, sometimes it helps not to follow a plan.
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