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The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  16,073 ratings  ·  2,031 reviews
The acclaimed author of Founding Gardeners reveals the forgotten life of Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary German naturalist whose ideas changed the way we see the natural world—and in the process created modern environmentalism.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. In North America, his name still grac
Hardcover, 473 pages
Published September 15th 2015 by Knopf
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Stefan this question can only be answered by yourself, considering the audience of your club. humboldt wrote about the abolition of slavery, the disastrous c…morethis question can only be answered by yourself, considering the audience of your club. humboldt wrote about the abolition of slavery, the disastrous consequences of reckless colonialism and the toil man is taking out on mother nature with his short-sightedness and wont for profit. he influenced people like darwin, goethe, jefferson, thoreau and muir, so his touch points spread over a plethora of fields. from religion, to literature and science, politics and being-human. in my opinion immense food for thought neatly woven around the life of a great person.(less)
Amanda Weaver This isn't a biography but I think you find this book interesting, too. I loved it. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obessession in the Wes…moreThis isn't a biography but I think you find this book interesting, too. I loved it. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obessession in the West by Nate Blakeslee(less)

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Dec 30, 2015 rated it liked it
3.5 stars. For me, this book was — like Why Nations Fail, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers— a keystone narrative that linked up many formerly disparate threads of my personal reading. Such books are rare pleasures. I had always known that Alexander von Humboldt’s story was a link missing from my general knowledge. The praises of Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould alone told me as much. But I didn't know this was generally due to anti-German sentiment so powerful in th ...more
May 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to David by: Charlene Lewis Estornell
This is a wonderful biography of a man about whom I knew very little. Today, in the United States, his name is practically unknown, despite being a world-wide celebrity in his day. Humboldt was a great explorer and scientist. He saw nature as a unified whole, an "organism in which parts only worked in relation to each other." His approach was holistic, and was entirely against the reductionist approach to science. Perhaps because of the influence of Goethe, Humboldt strongly advocated merging of ...more
Oct 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
This was an absolutely phenomenal read!! It’s a non-fiction but rarely do I read fiction books written so well and so well translated. And Alexander …… a most unusual man „since the deluge”. I’m delighted Andrea Wulf decided to write this book, which, in fact, is a homage to the scientist who undertook most extraordinary expeditions, who was interested in how nature works, and whose detailed observations regarding wildlife laid foundations for modern science and environmental studies. I’m not go ...more
Overall a nice book.

If I was giving star ratings then at times this book for me soared into five stars, at others it dredged through three star territory but because of the charm and vivacity and surprisingly upbeat approach to the book's subject I would not begrudge the book four stars and would generally encourage others to read it.

However I feel that Wulf's mind was pregnant with two books and in this one, both are conjoined and stillborn. There is the oddly optimistic and breezy book about
He saw the earth as one great living organism where everything was connected, conceiving a bold new vision of nature that still influences the way that we understand the natural world.

I immensely appreciated reading this narrative. The Invention of Nature portrays polymath Alexander von Humboldt in the wider scheme of things, linking his expeditions and research to the times of swift and radical economical transformations, of lasting and growing social unrest, of wars and revolutions he live
This biography of Alexander von Humboldt was a revelation and a fun ride for me. This German scientist is credited with developing core concepts of ecology and documenting impacts of human development on the environment in early part of the 19th century. Wulf, who studied history of design and has written previously on the history of horticulture, aims with this accessible and well-illustrated account to rectify the near absence of recognition of Humboldt’s accomplishments in U.S. science educat ...more
Mar 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, 2019-shelf
I was never taught a thing about this man in any of my courses, whether HS or college. Odd, right? Especially since he was a man so unambiguously RIGHT about so many things, had universal acclaim in his lifetime and for a long time afterward, but has, since WWI and WWII, been relegated to the dustbin of history because he HAPPENS to have grown up Prussian. That's Germany for you young whippersnappers not hip to what they called themselves back in Mozart's time.

So, WTF?

Here are some really cool
Roy Lotz
Alexander von Humboldt was a remarkable man. Simultaneously a savant and an explorer, he knew everyone, studied everything, and did his best to travel everywhere. Andrea Wulf brings together the many seemingly divergent worlds that he bridged: the worlds of Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, Napoleon, Goethe, Charles Darwin, and even Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He left his fingerprints on the worlds of science, literature, art, and even politics. Yet today he is (or was, before Wulf) a fairly obscure ...more
I had heard of Alexander von Humboldt prior to starting this – just about – though like most people I knew almost nothing about him. With this book, author Andrea Wulf has gone a long way towards rescuing her subject from undeserved obscurity.

The central event of Humboldt’s life was an almost unbelievably demanding 4-year journey through South America at the beginning of the 19th century, and it was this experience that most shaped his world view. The story of that journey is vividly told, as is
Jul 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A Goodreads friend of mine gave a very favorable review of this book, so I made a note to try and obtain it, which I did from my local library. At around that same time, by coincidence I also got the book, Measuring the World, by Daniel Kehlmann. Both deal with Alexander von Humboldt. I was not enamored with Kehlmann’s book although I was in the minority both with Goodreads reviewers and other reviewers. So on my table of books after I was done reading Measuring the World was this tome (473 page ...more
Nov 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Alexander von Humboldt was the first to demonstrate the global unity and co-dependence of plants, animals, land, sea and atmosphere. In this way, he first posed the idea of what we come to view as "nature".

His beginnings may have been usual for the German upper classes of the time. His wealthy but absent parents saw to an education that prepared him for a gentleman’s career. His eventual inheritance financed his expedition to South America. Wulf shows the difficulty of planning the trip, getting
Sep 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: environment
A wonderful biography on Alexander von Humboldt, the world’s first environmentalist. It is hard to overstate his lasting significance and his direct impact on 19th century scientists like Darwin and naturalists like Muir.

It said in this bio that the uber productive Alexander read three thousand letters a year and wrote two thousand a year, that is when he wasn’t away on field expeditions.

4.5 stars. The writing in this lengthy bio is 4 stars while the content is 5 stars. The depth of the chapte
This book is now #1 on my list of favorite books of all time.

When I was 16 I was an unwavering atheist and became incredibly obsessed with my own personal holy trinity: Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allen Poe. I loved Darwin's writing style and how he used facts over belief to understand the world. Thoreau's depiction of the world was depressing and heartbreakingly beautiful, just the RX my confused teenage brain needed at that time. It was a fantastic mindgasm to come to under
Sep 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2015
A scientific expedition had long been Alexander von Humboldt’s dream, so when he stepped onto the shores of Latin America in 1799 he was beyond excited, and soon began exploring, measuring, comparing, questioning, and chronicling everything: the distribution of indigenous plants, barometric pressure at different altitudes, the relative blueness of the sky, the cultures and customs of local people, rates of river evaporation, the environmental effects of farming, examples of native language, the ...more
Interesting and well written. Filled with pertinent information, yet a bit long-winded at times.

The book is not merely a biography covering the life of one man, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). It starts with a description of the world he was born into - Prussia, Pre-Romanticism and the eminent philosophers, poets and writers of the time, i.e. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich von Schiller, to name but a few. Humboldt came to spend long hours with Goethe. These prominen
Wulf’s award winning book is a bit different from the average biography in that it is about a history of Alexander von Humboldt’s (1769-1859) ideas as much as it is about the man. Humboldt was a naturalist, geographer, polymath, explorer and the first environmentalist who at one time was the most famous man in Europe.

Wulf reveals Humboldt’s discoveries of similarities between climate and vegetation zone on different continents (climate zones). The author discusses Humboldt’s prediction of human
Nov 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
We are indebted to Wulf for bringing this remarkable individual back to life for us in the 21st century. She is clearly enamored with her subject and not without reason. He was determined, adventurous, meticulous, methodical, original, influential, visionary and inspirational. With his presence, command of language and fact, new ideas and incredible explorations he was able to capture the imagination of those around him even though he could also be emotionally distant, tactless and self-centered ...more
Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
Aug 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
Not flawless (for me the weakest chapter was on Humboldt and Thoreau), but endlessly fascinating. Before there was Carl Sagan and his Cosmos, there was the great Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and his Kosmos.

Why have we forgotten him? Because he was German? (That would be depressing.) Because he did not invent one theory in a specific field, but a way of looking at the universe? (Possible, I think. The former is easier to teach in school than the latter.) I don't know. At any rate,
Jun 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in learning more about the beginnings of Natural History
I am really happy that I took the time to savour this book. Wulf does an incredible job painting a portrait of a relatively unknown figure, through her evocative and well-researched biography. Throughout this book, I could not believe that I had never heard of Alexander von Humboldt. He was a polymath, explorer, naturalist and writer who had a life full of adventure, discoveries and influence.

Humboldt devoted his whole life to traveling and studying in attempts to understand the natural world a
Apr 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
This book follows the life of Alexander Von Humboldt and takes us on a rapturous journey with him through South America and Siberia, with detours with Darwin, Thoreau, Emerson and strangely enough with Bolivar during his own revolution. I have criticized other books for this same reason, but Andrea Wolf was both chronological with these detours and stuck with the theme of Humboldt and naturalism. And thus we learn about this great man and our current view of nature.

Alexander Von Humboldt was th
When you think of scientists that have formed the way that we think about world around us, the names that tend to come to mind are Newton, Darwin, Wallace, Davy and Einstein. In the mid-19th Century though the most famous scientist in the world was a man called Alexander von Humboldt, a man very few people have ever heard of these days.

von Humboldt had a fascination of everything around him; he studied plants, geology, volcanos, animal and the stars the weather and the movement of the planets.
Mar 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Alexander von Humboldt was born in 1769 in Prussia as the younger son of an aristocratic and wealthy family (the father supplied the title, the mother the money). When he and his brother Wilhelm (later Minister of Education in Berlin and founder of the Humboldt University there) were little, their father died. Their relationship with their mother was … cool, to say the least.
While his brother was bookish, Alexander was not only curious but also couldn't sit still. He didn't want to know the worl
Oct 22, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audible
Alexander von Humboldt was a fascinating man. He has been largely forgotten in the English speaking world. This biography is a pretty comprehensive look at his discoveries. I really enjoy parts of it and found parts of it to be really tedious. He was a visionary and many of his ideas have shaped today's environmental issues. It's pretty amazing how spot on he was about issues we are facing today. If you are interested in the environment and nature I definitely recommend this. I listened to the a ...more
Jul 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Alexander von Humboldt is not widely known or recognized in the Western World. But it is he who lay the foundations for the human vision of nature as something understandable and part of a closely connected system, where the minute intervention of man can cause devastating results. In this book, Andrea Wulf succeeded in providing great insights into Alexander von Humboldt, ranging from his personal life to the detailed observations and descriptions that he made on his grand voyages, as well as h ...more
How is that I've never heard of such a distinguished scientist as Alexander von Humboldt? This is the man that influenced some of the greatest thinkers, was an avid supporter of human rights in the age of slavery, and a proponent of conservationism when humanity was considered the centre of the God-created universe. Humboldt was a visionary that we need in our tumultuous times. He was perhaps not the most easy person to have a conversation with, but the legacy that he left cannot be ignored.

Peter Tillman
On hiatus. I'll write up my notes, but I'm likely done, or nearly so. Lots of Good Stuff, but, like many biographers, Wulf rather fell in love with her subject, and it shows. Not all in a bad way.....
Here's the NYT review, which is likely the reason I read the book:
"Alexander von Humboldt was the pre-eminent scientist of his time. Contemporaries spoke of him as second in fame only to Napoleon. All over the Americas and the English-speaking world,
Joachim Stoop
Jan 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Von Humboldt was a hero in the old 'Homo Universalis Visionary The world is here and I've got no minute to lose, so let's read, write, travel, talk, explore' kind of way.
Andrea Wulf is a heroine for gathering all the information about him that she could find and assembling it into a highly enjoyable and fascinating biography. What a triump!
Vimal Thiagarajan
Nov 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adorations
Introducing and factually exploring the life of someone who is almost completely forgotten in the modern world, yet was the most famous man in the world during his long and restless lifetime, someone who is totally missing from modern school and university textbooks, yet was a key inspiration and guiding beacon for many of the celebrated names we find in these same textbooks - biographies seldom get better.

An intrepid explorer and the best mountaineer of his time, Alexander Von Humboldt left his
K.J. Charles
Rendered totally unreadable in electronic form by the baffling decision of the publisher to do the footnotes as hyperlinks covering multiple words each, so it feels like about 10% of the text is underlined and in different colours, and it's barely possible to turn the page without bringing up a footnote box. I don't know who thought this was a good formatting decision but it's unusable and hopelessly distracting.

DNF at 15%. Do not buy the ebook. No idea what the book itself is like, I think Goe
Jan 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-clubs
Ana amazing book about the man who first realized the correlation between man's actions and their effects on the natural world. Theories we take for granted, like climate change, were first put forth by Humboldt. Also interesting to see how his theories inspired more well known names like Darwin, Thoreau and Muir.
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Andrea Wulf is a biographer. She is the author of The Brother Gardeners, published in April 2008. It was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and received a CBHL Annual Literature Award in 2010. She was born in India, moved to Germany as a child, and now resides in Britain.

Articles featuring this book

For more than a decade, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the world-renowned astrophysicist and host of the popular radio and Emmy-nominated...
82 likes · 14 comments
“Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody.” 26 likes
“The effects of the human species’ intervention were already ‘incalculable’, Humboldt insisted, and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally’. Humboldt would see again and again how humankind unsettled the balance of nature.” 15 likes
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