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Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  982 ratings  ·  141 reviews
"A house of wonders itself. . . . Wonderland inspires grins and well-what-d'ya-knows" The New York Times Book Review

From the New York Times-bestselling author of How We Got to Now and Where Good Ideas Come From, a look at the world-changing innovations we made while keeping ourselves entertained.

This lushly illustrated history of popular entertainment takes a long-zoom
Hardcover, Hardcover, 304 pages
Published November 11th 2016 by Riverhead Books
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Dec 10, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Steven Johnson is one of my favorite authors (I even wrote this article making suggestions on where to start if you've never read him).

Wonderland is very similar to Johnson's previous book, How We Got to Now, which examined six innovations, clean, time, glass, light, cold, and sound that revolutionized the world. Wonderland takes a similar tact, this time examining how six amusements-fashion, music, taste, illusions, games, and public spaces-have had similar results. For example, the early
Gretchen Rubin
An interesting exploration of how the human desire for play shapes culture. I've been thinking a lot about this, in relation to the senses. The things we've done for black pepper.
Joseph Brigante
Let me be very clear. My rating reflects my preference, not the quality of the book. This book has taught me about myself in that I am very interested in play as applies to games and gaming.

I will say I feel the use of the word "play" in the title is used extremely loosely. I personally do not consider a taste for spices to be "play." This is more an exploration of how the seeking of pleasure/novelty, not the push to have more of the necessities, drives much of innovation and exploration. The
Wonderland : How Play Made the Modern World (2016) by Steven Johnson is an interesting read about the impact of how luxuries and amusements have had on history. Johnson wrote a superb book called 'How we got to now' that had a limited number of key inventions that he says lead to the modern world. Wonderland is similarly constructed.

The book looks at shopping, music, taste, illusion, games and public space. The chapter on shopping looks at how the development of shopping fed growth. When looking
I really wanted to like this book more. At times it was very interesting and at others it seemed Johnson was working very hard to connect his topics back to the original concept of the book and it made the reading very tedious. There were some very clear instances of innovation born from the human desire for entertainment, but the majority of the connections felt forced and almost shoehorned in to make a point. I learned a few interesting things, so it wasn't a waste. I was just so excited about ...more
Florin Pitea
Jun 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Enjoyable and informative. Highly recommended.
I have mixed feelings about the book. First off, let's start with positive ones.
1. The concept is truly fascinating - the author attempts to explore how hobbies, fun, and entertainment changed the world in the most unusual and beneficial world.
2. The writing is light, intelligent, and most time quite approachable.

Alas, the book also has earned some minors miffs as well.
1. Sometimes the author was so much enthused about the topic that I found the book meandering and off topic. It might be
I chose this as my non-fiction book about technology for the Read Harder Challenge. Wasn't sure I really wanted to read a tech book, but this was so fantastic! I loved learning about how certain innovations have changed the whole course of human history.
Tyler Barron
The content was cool but the premise seemed flawed. Reminds me of high school papers when I'd come up with the thesis and then try to find evidence to support it, instead of vis versa

Regardless, the technologies and stories were compelling, fun and well written
May 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wonderland is a book by an author that I have enjoyed in the past so I was really looking forward to this book. And I enjoyed it, but I can't help feeling a bit misled by the subtitle and the synopsis inside the front cover. One chapter focused on toys and games, the other chapters described other non-essential activities that had an impact on other more essential inventions or discoveries. It would have been more accurate for the subtitle to be "How Our Search for Pleasure Made the Modern ...more
Mar 02, 2017 rated it liked it
An interesting book, although the title is misleading. Only the introduction has an in-depth analysis/discussion on how play created innovation, linking early automatons with Babbage's invention of the difference engine. The subsequent book chapters are variations on how connections can lead to various discoveries. This is similar to the old PBS show "Connections". Well worth the read, though, for anyone interested in how serendipity can play in innovation.
Those of us of a certain age who grew up in a British focused world might remember a 1970s TV show hosted by James Burke called Connections that was a history of science and technology exploring the ways ideas developed and the technology and practices that grew from and shaped those developments. I recall, while in high school, being wowed at the way he built links between seemingly random ideas, discoveries, inventions and their consequences. It taught me an enormous amount about doing ...more
Vince Siu
Jun 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas." - Charles Eames

Quotes Steven Johnson in Wonderland, just as his collection of fantastical tales is a prelude to a serious thesis: that play - or, more specifically, playfulness and that very human tendency towards entertainment, frivolity and curiosity - underlies modernity and drives continuous innovation.

Growing up playing and with games all around me, I always knew some sort of higher calling was behind my eventual return to this domain:
Reid Mccormick
Apr 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
When I was a kid, I loved going to Disneyland. It is such a magical place. It is full of music, lights, animals, pirates, ghosts and so much more. As an adult I still find Disneyland a magical place. Though I know a lot of the secrets behind the magic, I am amazed at how I can find a magical kingdom smack dab in the middle of Orange County. But when you really take a step back and look at the wonders of Disneyland (and the Disney Company as a whole) you realize how the entire entity is ...more
Mar 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wonderland is another reliably entertaining and informative entry in the Steven Johnson canon. I was charmed but not blown away, and it failed to unseat The Ghost Map from its first place in my personal Steven-Johnson-ranking system. That being said a solid SJ book is still much more fun than a lot of other nonfiction. Wonderland reads like a series of historical short stories on common and uncommon pleasures: movie theaters, board games, gambling, strange crazes most of us have never heard of ...more
Ed Bernard
Jun 03, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Maybe 4.5 stars

This super-entertaining book (do we expect anything less from Johnson?) posits that most, if not all, major human advances happened not to solve problems, but to entertain us. Everything from cotton, patterned clothing to computers were first developed to entertain us. In fact, according to Johnson, the automation that sparked the Industrial Revolution and thus the modern age began with automatons basically, very complicated toys. There are a jillion examples ancient love for
Arnoud De Meyer
Aug 18, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As is explained in other reviews this book brings an interesting angle to the question where innovations originate. Often one hears the statement that necessity is the mother of invention/innovation. This book brings a different view: innovation is often the consequence of our desire to be entertained and surprised. Games, spicy food, social interaction, fashion, etc. are sources of significant technological and social innovations. As a scholar on innovation management I found this a very ...more
Tony Fitzpatrick
Aug 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book attempts to explain that one of the key drivers for the growth of innovation and the exploitation of new ideas has always been mankind's desire to entertain itself. By examining concepts such as fashion, taverns or coffee houses, and games, Johnson shows how society has evolved through the pursuit of pleasure, and how completely unpredictable outcomes are inextricably linked to the growth of recreational ideas. So, we get computers from sophisticated clockwork toys (use of punched ...more
Sep 25, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The introduction to this book is really good. It's compelling, entertaining, hints at a broader thesis that will be explored in the pages ahead. From there, I'm not sure what happened. Johnson promisees to show how technologies developed as toys or entertainment shaped the modern world. Instead, he offers a grab bag of essays, some better than others, some of which attempt to prove that thesis and others which don't even bother.

Sometimes, Johnson put forth an interesting, but somewhat
Jerrid Kruse
Oct 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book is interesting as a selective history of technology. I found the connections between music and coding to be particularly interesting. However, the main premise that leisure activities lead to utilitarian ends is not always as clear as one would hope. While the dopamine response certainly provides motivation for developing new forms of entertainment, a direct connection to utilitarian innovations was sometimes a stretch. Yet, the ideological shifts and the "adjacent possible" (from one ...more
Nov 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
I found this to be fascinating. While not quite as cohesive as How We Got To Now (still one of my favorite books ever), this exploration of the effect of play on society and history was insightful and cleverly arranged. I find that Johnson doesnt waste words: while some books of this length on such narrow topics have an excess of flowery language, Johnson writes long and detailed but without wasted effort. The book is just as long as it needs to be to convey a very thought-provoking message. I ...more
Quinn Lavender
I would have given this 4 stars were it not for the first examples early on in the book which talked about 1) fabrics and dyes and 2) spices. They felt out of place in a book dedicated to "play" and "wonder." I can see how the drive for spice re-shaped the world, and that in itself sounds like a fascinating book that's already been written...but otherwise these two chapters cause the book to get off to a very slow start.

After that, though: this book contains so many intriguing insights. I
Intriguing and entertaining book about how the desires for novelty, distraction, leisure, and play have led to significant scientific, historical, and economic breakthroughs, among them:

* the insurance industry (founded in coffeehouses)
* the American Revolution (hatched in taverns)
* machine learning (an IBM employee taught a computer to play checkers reasonably well, which IBM's founder predicted would raise the company's stock 15 points)
* the idea that humans and apes have a common ancestor
Michael Clifford
Mar 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting read on the origin of key innovations - many of which started as play activities. As example, he discusses how decorative fashions from the Far East became clothing items and ultimately lead to fashionable shops in London. These them morphed into department stores which were unheard of before. A long road indeed to shopping malls and now back to inner city shopping areas. Another interesting example were public taverns and coffee shops which lead to more mixing of the classes and to ...more
Luke Kanies
A useful and important hypothesis (that the desire for wonder and play has led to a large portion of humanitys advances), but executed not very well. Too many described pursuits were poorly tied to the claimed results (e.g., claiming the seeking of spices built the trade routes, when those routes were called the Silk Road, not the spice road).

I would have liked a more scholarly version of this book, with more effort to truly tie efforts to outcomes, and also one with a lot less commentary. I was
Charlie Brummitt
A delightful read about how the pursuit of delight shaped our world more than we appreciate.

I thought that listening to the podcast made from this book would have spoiled the best parts, but there were many new gems in the book. I enjoyed learning, for example, about how "the great outdoors", the idea of nature as a source of pleasure, was invented in the 1700s, at a time when mountains were viewed as Earth's ugly blisters. Or how Darwin's experience watching an orangutan in an early zoo was as
Aug 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, true, history
A fascinating discussion of how games and enjoyment work with or actually are a PART of the anthropology and the creation of our current society! Games from ancient Arabic countries all the way through current times, as well as the pleasure that we as a people derive from spices, observing and interacting with other people, and observing and interacting with animals are all a part of what makes us us. Some of our greatest innovations are based on what creates and encourages pleasure, and this ...more
Sep 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Challenging the oft-repeated claim that "necessity is the mother of invention," Johnson explores the innovations and broader societal impact related to humankind's quest for the pleasing, the interesting, and the curious. Topics covered include fashion, spices, music, and more, so that most of our senses are covered at some point in the book. It is a large topic, which can't be covered exhaustively in a book of this size, but one of my requirements for a good nonfiction book has always been that ...more
James Patrick Schmidt
Interesting and informative, but a little over-hyped and I would have liked to see more about play rather than just the development of things we play with.

That said, the examples helped to illustrate the point and develop a strong argument for the premise, while also providing interesting facts and anecdotes around the major characters that we followed advancements of "play."

A better title would be "How Entertainment Made the Modern World."
Oct 02, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Want to give this a 3.5 - I enjoyed it (more than "just" liked it) but I didn't REALLY like it!

I didn't buy the connection between spices and play. He barely sold it, but the subtitle "How Play Made the Modern World" means an entire chapter on spices doesn't make sense to me. But it was interesting.

I'm a big fan of podcasts "Stuff You Missed In History Class" and "Useless Information," and my appreciation for this book was in the same vein as my enjoyment of those two podcasts.
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Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of twelve books, including Enemy of All Mankind, Farsighted, Wonderland, How We Got to Now, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You.
He's the host of the podcast American Innovations, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. Johnson lives in Marin County, California,

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