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The Invention of Nature; Alexander Von Humboldt's New World

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The invention of Nature; Alexander Von Humboldt's New World -Andrea Wulf

Alexander Humboldt may well have been the smartest and most influential thinker that I'd never really heard of (although I had wondered if the Humboldt's squid, Humboldt current, Humboldt Glacier, and all the other Humboldt's thisses and thats were named after one guy).His ideas prefigured and paved the way for everything from continental drift and evolution to understanding humanly influenced climate change. Not to mention how his political and social ideas and ideals influenced such hugely important leaders as Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar. This is a meticulously researched (150 of its 500 pages are notes and references) biography of the man and a very impressive piece of scholarship which recognizes and investigates how central Humboldt was to the progressive thinking of the 19th century.

Humboldt's primary contribution (and we are, of course, talking only about the worldviews of Europe and the Western World) was a scientific, rather than mystical, understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. He is essentially the father of the idea of ecological systems. Until Humboldt ideas about the natural world were dominated by the Church endorsed/enforced view that God gave us this planet to use for our own ends, and the mechanistic Cartesian view that parts were interchangeable and our tinkering was valuable, and that our consumption of resources had no overall effects. And it seems that the reason many of us know so little of him today is that his ideas were so seminal to the accepted viewpoints of today, and because others championed and proved and extended those ideas, that Humboldt's contributions have gotten lost in the shuffle. But I may be in the minority in my lack of knowledge of Humboldt. My interest in the natural world is great, but my investigations far from scholarly.

But this was rather a dry book, although that perception may just betray my own prejudice against non-fiction writing in general. And it is probably a function of the enormous number of events and happenings in Humboldt's life. 2,000 pages, rather than 339, would have probably been required to give the depth to this book that I kept seeking. He went here, did this and said that; then he went there, did that, said this....I learned a lot from this book, but I'm sure I'd have learned more if my eyes didn't keep glazing over from facts and figures and less than optimally detailed events. But again, that may just be a function of the genre itself, for which I have little affinity. This was a very impersonal book, and rather bloodless. But it did convey a tremendous amount of information, although it was odd to me that it did so in such an un-poetic way, since one of Humboldt's greatest revolutions was in bringing subjectivity and lyrical description to the biological and earth sciences.

Alexander Humboldt was a polymath with an absolutely voracious appetite for knowledge of all kinds, a deep thinker and synthesizer of ideas, a gentle voiced man who talked incessantly in uninterruptible monologues, a generous man yet possessed of a sharp and vicious tongue (although virtually none of that trait is on display in this book), a charming man, welcomed and feted everywhere he went, and a probable homosexual who sublimated those unrequited and socially unacceptable energies into his quest for more and deeper knowledge of 'life, the Universe, and everything',

My favorite parts of the book, after the descriptions of Humboldt's travels in South America, and much later in Russia, were the sections devoted to his influence on Darwin, Thoreau, George Marsh, John Muir, and many others. The sketches of the lives of these great thinkers, and the way they incorporated and expanded Humboldt's ideas, was both illuminating and fascinating. Less intensely interesting to me, but no doubt of great import to others, was the world history recounted by Wulf as it occurred and affected Humboldt from his birth in 1769 to his death in 1859.

On balance I am very glad I read this book. Much of it was revelatory to me. And while I'd have liked a bit more depth in the narrative, and more lyrical prose, this book can only be admired for the truly vast amounts of information it contains. For what it set out to accomplish I believe it struck its mark precisely, and for this I give it 4stars.

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You are right that he has been largely overshadowed by 'greater' names Dan, but a fascinating gentleman for all that. I have to confess that I, too, know little about Humboldt, and should rectify that - but probably not with this particular publication.

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