Summary and book reviews of The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder

How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2009, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2010, 576 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Book Summary

A riveting history of the men and women whose discoveries and inventions at the end of the eighteenth century gave birth to the Romantic Age of Science.

When young Joseph Banks stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, he hoped to discover Paradise. Inspired by the scientific ferment sweeping through Britain, the botanist had sailed with Captain Cook on his first Endeavour voyage in search of new worlds. Other voyages of discovery—astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical—swiftly follow in Richard Holmes’s original evocation of what truly emerges as an Age of Wonder.

Brilliantly conceived as a relay of scientific stories, The Age of Wonder investigates the earliest ideas of deep time and space, and the explorers of “dynamic science,” of an infinite, mysterious Nature waiting to be discovered. Three lives dominate the book: William Herschel and his sister Caroline, whose dedication to the study of the stars forever changed the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way, and the meaning of the universe; and Humphry Davy, who, with only a grammar school education stunned the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments that led to the invention of the miners’ lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. This age of exploration extended to great writers and poets as well as scientists, all creators relishing in moments of high exhilaration, boundary-pushing and discovery.

Holmes’s extraordinary evocation of this age of wonder shows how great ideas and experiments—both successes and failures—were born of singular and often lonely dedication, and how religious faith and scientific truth collide. He has written a book breathtaking in its originality, its storytelling energy, and its intellectual significance.

Chapter 1
Joseph Banks in Paradise 1

On 13 April 1769, young Joseph Banks, official botanist to HM Bark Endeavour, first clapped eyes on the island of Tahiti, 17 degrees South, 149 degrees West. He had been told that this was the location of Paradise: a wonderful idea, although he did not quite believe it.

Banks was twenty-six years old, tall and well-built, with an appealing bramble of dark curls. By temperament he was cheerful, confident and adventurous: a true child of the Enlightenment. Yet he had thoughtful eyes and, at moments, a certain brooding intensity: a premonition of a quite different sensibility, the dreaming inwardness of Romanticism. He did not like to give way to it. So he kept good company with his shipmates, and had carefully maintained his physical fitness throughout the first eight months of the voyage. He regarded himself – ‘thank god’ – as in as good mental and physical trim as a man could be. When occasionally depressed, he did ...

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  • award image

    National Book Critics Circle Award
    2010

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Age of Wonder is stirring reading for anyone interested in the lives of extraordinary, world-altering people. Learning how and when great poets and great scientists met one another, read each other’s work, or absorbed each other’s speculations and discoveries makes reading The Age of Wonder an especially ecstatic adventure. From every angle, this is a wonderful book.   (Reviewed by Jo Perry).

Full Review Members Only (734 words).

Media Reviews

The Christian Science Monitor

I have to say that at times that stream flows sluggishly with Holmes at the helm, and at more than a few points I was leafing ahead to find out what the next chapter was about. But his delight in his material is unmistakable.

The New York Times Book Review

...Mr. Holmes’s excitement at fusing long-familiar events and personages into something startlingly new is not unlike the exuberance of the age that animates his groundbreaking book.

Time

[T]he most flat-out fascinating book so far this year. Holmes' account... is beyond riveting

Library Journal

The subject makes this book most relevant for readers of general science and history of science, but its engaging narratives of the period could appeal to a broader readership.

Kirkus Reviews

Enjoyable excavation of a time when science and art fed off each other, to the benefit of both communities.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. It's an engrossing portrait of scientists as passionate adventurers, boldly laying claim to the intellectual leadership of society.

The Sunday Times (UK)

Holmes suffuses his book with the joy, hope, and wonder of the revolutionary era. Reading it is like a holiday in a sunny landscape, full of fascinating bypaths that lead to unexpected vistas.

The Guardian (UK)

Gives us .... a new model for scientific exploration and poetic expression in the Romantic period. Informative and invigoration, generous and beguiling, it is, indeed, wonderful.

The Independent (UK)

Romanticism and Science are justly reunited in Holmes's new book ... A revelation ... Thrilling.

The Daily Telegraph (UK)

Exhilarating ... Instructive and delightful ... Finely observed ... Generous and hugely enjoyable.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Richard Holmes
Biographer, poet, editor and historian Richard Holmes was born in London and attended Cambridge. He’s the author of:

  • One for Sorrow, Two for Joy (poems)
  • Shelley: The Pursuit
  • Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage
  • Coleridge: Early Visions
  • Coleridge: Darker Reflections
  • Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
  • Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer
  • Insights: The Romantic Poets and their Circle

Of biography Holmes says:
Richard Holmes"Of course I think biography aspires to be an art, just as the novel does. It is a piece of imaginative storytelling, as well as an historical investigation. It celebrates the wonderful diversity of human nature, and its aim is enlightenment. But biography is also a vocation, a calling...

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