Brilliant, reminiscent of Lewis Hydes The Gift in its reach and of Timothy Egans 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 worlds ecosystems.
Edisons "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.
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 Emperors 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 ...
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).
Full Review (1015 words).
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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