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Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  400 Ratings  ·  80 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
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published July 8th 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 1st 2010)
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Tom Quinn
Jul 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
We bookworms are familiar with the old cliche: reading in bed, our partner asleep beside us, lost in a book that we read by bedside lamplight. As children, we huddled beneath blankets with a flashlight and read long past bedtime, hoping mom and dad wouldn't peek in and catch us. Like all minor marvels of technology, constant use and easy exposure have deadened us to what is by all rights a miracle: consistent, ready, omnipresent light, available on demand with a simple flick of a switch. Adjusta ...more
Lina Baker
May 21, 2013 rated it it was ok
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
Jul 12, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 29, 2013 rated it it was ok
"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."
Jul 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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.
Beth Browne
Feb 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, readable account of humankind's relationship with light. In the final chapter, titled "The Once and Future Light," Brox suggests that "we also need to think back to the past, to ask ourselves whether we are hampered more by brilliance than our ancestors ever were by the dark." A very good question.
Aug 27, 2011 rated it liked it
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.
Oct 22, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
p.27 There would always be something of the cold taste of order in public lighting.
p.97-8 Benjamin Franklin, one of the eighteenth century's most tireless 'electricians'--a phrase he coined and by which electrical experimenters were then known.
p.130 Not until the 1867 Paris Exposition did a world's fair stay open at night.

A fascinating and thorough look at a subject that most people, including this reader, take for granted: artificial light. One of the strengths of the novel is the depth and bre
Jun 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
This book is how I imagine a great dissertation should be written. It is very well researched, and citations abound. However, Brox writes in a way that invites readers to keep turning the page. She almost seamlessly mixes statistics with personal observation and philosophical musing. Chapter by chapter, Brox peels back the layers of perhaps the most quotidian of things in our modern world: artificial light. What are the political, natural, economic, etc. consequences of light across the world an ...more
Aug 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
A very interesting book. I think it could have used a bit more editing. Some times it read like a science textbook, but overall I think it portrayed how artificial light has evolved over the centuries in an interesting and informative way.
Ronnie Cramer
Mar 18, 2017 rated it it was ok
A fascinating topic but an often laborious presentation.
Clark Hays
Nov 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
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
Michelle Caron
Mar 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Ilsa Bick
Jul 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Elisha Condie
Aug 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: so-interesting
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
Sep 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Amanda Coussoule
Aug 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. While it doesn't flow as smoothly as some other histories I've read (Salt, At Home), I learned so much about what is probably obscure history in some ways. For me, it especially brought to life just how dark life must have been before the incandescent light bulb. I love to read Victorian romance novels, which include scene after scene of evening balls and events. After reading this book, I have a whole new appreciation for what kind of light that era actually had in t ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
Aug 22, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: sept-oct-2010
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
Aug 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
I love books that show the connectedness of events, books like Bill Bryson's One Summer America 1927 and Rinker Buck's The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Brilliant shines a light on the world before and after Man harnessed fire, from stone lamps of the Pleistocene 40,000 years ago to the future of cool light and the concern today of light pollution. Despite some sections heavy in technical detail, Brox has a lyrical style which capture's the reader's imagination from the pitch dark street ...more
Anna White
Sep 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: best
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
Nov 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Wow. I found this thoroughly engaging, despite the great amount of information conveyed. But even more important, I feel like reading this has shifted my thinking. I've never really thought about light before because, as she points out, it has become something we (and of course I mean we living in prosperous and politically stable countries that actually have the ability to create and maintain widespread electrical grids) take for granted because it's just always there. The impact it has sociall ...more
Dec 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Karen Hazzah
Feb 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, technology
Mixture of social history and history of lighting technology. Easy to read, breezy style.
Jul 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a good book about a fascinating topic. What's really hard to imagine is how vastly different life has been for each of the last five centuries. From 50,000 years of huddling around a lamp fueled with animal fat through the dark nights of winter to candles made of tallow to oil lamps powered by the reduced fat of whales to kerosene in blown glass to sitting on a couch under compact fluorescent light with the air conditioner on, the television on, the phone ringing, the words of our books ...more
Autumn Kotsiuba
Dec 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I love this stuff. "Brilliant" is a very comprehensive guide to the history of light through the European/American channel. It amazes me how light affected other aspects of history--the effect on race relations, home development, etc.--but I guess that's the point and power of microhistory.

4 stars instead of 5 because my favorite parts (ancient usage of light / the downside to stargazing) were short. It's also not "creative nonfiction;" the information, though interesting, is just given. But st
Jul 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Nov 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Anne Dunham
May 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
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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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"
“Soon now, the faint tinkling of a broken filament will become another sound of another century.” 3 likes
“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
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