Summary and book reviews of Brilliant by Jane Brox

Brilliant

The Evolution of Artificial Light

By Jane Brox

Brilliant
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2010,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2011,
    368 pages.

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Book Summary

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 - through the many centuries when crude lamps and tallow candles constricted waking hours. She convincingly portrays the hell-bent pursuit of whale oil as the first time the human desire for light thrust us toward an environmental tipping point. Only decades later, gas street lights opened up the evening hours to leisure, which changed the ways we live and sleep and the world’s ecosystems.

Edison’s "tiny strip of paper that a breath would blow away" produced a light that seemed to its users all but divorced from human effort or cost. And yet, as Brox's informative and hair-raising portrait of our current grid system shows, the cost is ever with us.

Brilliant is infused with human voices, startling insights, and, only a few years before it becomes illegal to sell most incandescent light bulbs in the United States, timely questions about how our future lives will be shaped by light.

Brilliant

Light -- so precious within -- was even rarer on the streets of the cities, towns, and villages of the past, for before the seventeenth century street lighting was almost non-existent everywhere in the world. A fourth-century inhabitant of the Syrian city of Antioch claimed: “The light of the sun is succeeded by other lights…. The night with us differs from the day only in the appearance of the light.” And geographer Yi-Fu Tuan notes that in China, “Hang-chou boasted a vigorous night life along the crowded Imperial way before the Mongols invaded the Sung capital in A.D.1276.” But other Chinese cities were dark except during the New Year and on the Emperor’s birthday, when torches lined the roads and the skies flared with fireworks. Renaissance Florence had no streetlights, nor did Imperial Rome, of which Jérôme Carcopino writes: “No oil lamps lighted [the streets], no candles were affixed to the walls; no lanterns were hung ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

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.   (Reviewed by Jo Perry).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
"Just one of the many pleasures of Jane Brox's sweeping history of human light is its evocation of the wonder and fascination the lowly light bulb roused when it was new, before it became, by virtue of the reverse alchemy of mass production, abundant and déclassé. Brox succeeds brilliantly thanks to writing that rivals her subject in sparkle, glow, and wattage."

Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. With Brox’s beautiful prose, this book amply lives up to its title." - Publishers Weekly

Library Journal

"This well-written, well-researched, and thought-provoking book has much to offer." - Library Journal

The Boston Globe - Max Ross

We live in an era where information has become a perpetually more valuable commodity. And “Brilliant’’ has loads of exceptionally engaging information, including all the extracurricular stuff. But there may be too much here; the facts sometimes become jumbled and confusing, an amusement park with so many flashing lights it’s difficult to know where to go.

New York Times - Elizabeth Royte

Ruminative and curious, Brox excels at discussing the cultural and psychological changes wrought by more and better light, from the self-reliance of lanterns to our eventual dependence on coal-gas and then electric utilities. Who had light and who did not? What did different types of people do with their newfound hours? How did street lighting change public behavior? (Once drinkers could move safely between taverns, instead of perching on a single tavern stool all night, Brox writes, the streets became far rowdier; prostitutes previously confined to brothels could now sell their wares al fresco.)

The New Scientist

Few people today appreciate the impact the incandescent lamp made following its invention in 1879. In Brilliant, Jane Brox captures the before-and-after. Beginning with lamps carved from limestone 40,000 years ago, she expertly traces the tortuous route to artificial light.... [A]fter seeing the value of light before electricity, and how much people achieved under a candle's glow, you may think twice when you flick the switch.

Entertainment Weekly - Tina Jordan

In Jane Brox's hands, a yawn-inducing subject has been fashioned into an addictively readable cultural history. In a word: dazzling. Rated A.

Seattle Times - David B. Williams

....Brox has done a first-rate job in telling its story.

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Coleridge's Frost at Midnight and The International Dark Sky Association

Brilliant provokes much thought on a variety of topics: circadian rhythms; the health dangers of light exposure; the depiction of natural and man-made light in art (Brox discusses three of Van Gogh's night paintings and explains what light and darkness was like for him.); the Columbian Exhibition; the eccentric and visionary Nikola Tesla; the effect of light on the lives of women; etc. I leave it to each reader to explore those topics that interest him most.

Brilliant illuminated a favorite poem of mine, Coleridge's Frost at Midnight, in which the speaker describes a flame as "companionable," "unquiet," "a fluttering stranger" whose restless and mysterious movements exhibit a human sympathy. Post Brilliant, Coleridge's ...

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