The Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes
read by Gildart Jackson
Published 2011 by Blackstone Audio
21 hours, 30 minutes. Unabridged.
Rating: 4/5

The Age of Wonder is a colorful and utterly absorbing 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 in search of new worlds. Other voyages of discovery—astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical—swiftly follow in Richard Holmes’s thrilling evocation of the second scientific revolution. Through the lives of William Herschel and his sister Caroline, who forever changed the public conception of the solar system; of Humphry Davy, whose near-suicidal gas experiments revolutionized chemistry; and of the great Romantic writers, from Mary Shelley to Coleridge and Keats, who were inspired by the scientific breakthroughs of their day, Holmes brings to life the era in which we first realized both the awe-inspiring and the frightening possibilities of science—an era whose consequences are with us still.

This is one of those times that I don’t like ratings. It’s rare for me. Usually, I have no problem assigning a rating to a book. Then I come across a book like this where I think it’s very well done, but sometimes loses my interest. It has nothing to do with Holmes’s writing or research. I think he did a superb job and I think Gildart Jackson did a wonderful job reading it. Without his narration, I doubt I would have made it past page two. My problem was that I am totally and completely disinterested in chemistry and Mary Shelly. In fact, I hated Frankenstein. But! Richard Holmes made me appreciate it, even if I didn’t like reading it. And he surely made me appreciate anesthetics after that rather horrifying section on Fanny Burney’s surgery. I can’t believe she didn’t pass out. However, nothing could keep me engaged during the section on Humphry Davey. Chemistry is definitely one of the most boring topics in science, as far as I’m concerned. I said all that to say that I think had I been more interested in the topics of the second half of the book, I might have given this five stars. But my disinterest in all is what caused me to lower it. Enough of all that! Let’s get to the good stuff!

I love the narrative feel of this book. It’s something that was brought to life even more through Jackson’s narration, but more on that later. Holmes has a great style that allows the book to be both informative and entertaining. I felt strongly about this in the first half of the book, when he discussed Joseph Banks and Tahiti, the Herschels and astronomy, and ballooning. It amazes me how much of history we skim through in high school. I had never even heard of William Herschel. In fact, the only people in the I had heard of was Humphry Davey and the writers mentioned. Maybe I just didn’t have a good high school education as far as history was concerned. Or maybe it’s the culmination of history, science, and literature that made everything click into place for me during this book. I just felt like I learned more in this book than I did in all of my high school history classes combined. Then again, I was paying attention to the book, and not so much to high school history teachers.

Since this is a non-fiction title on history and science, I’ll give you a little run-down on what it contains. The book begins with Joseph Banks’s voyage to Tahiti. I have to say it’s an excellent way to start the book, since this is probably one of the more fascinating topics. Josephs Banks is a presence throughout the rest of the book because of his affiliation with the Royal Academy of Science. There’s a section on the ballooning craze, which I also found very interesting. Next up, is the section on the William Herschel and his sister Caroline. I think astronomy is pretty interesting too, so I was able to stay engaged during all of that. It was when I reached the section on Humphry Davey that my interest lagged. It begins with his experiments with gases and nitrous oxide, and I liked that bit. The book lost me when it got into electrolysis. Honestly, a lot of that went over my head and I have little to no interest in chemistry so I was never compelled to figure it out. The final section is about the role of science in literature at the time. One huge example was Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. I had to read that book for a college course and I hated every minute of it. The writing is so detailed I wanted to gouge my eyes out, but Holmes gives a pretty good summary of the book and what it’s really about. He actually made me realize why it’s such a staple in classic literature. The bottom line: if you’re interested in this era of science or if you like some history now and then, pick this one up. Holmes has done his homework (as usual) and offers the knowledge with great writing.

Gildart Jackson did a wonderful job. When I read things like this, I always listen to audio because I know I’d never make it through the book otherwise. Jackson’s fluency kept me engaged. He even changes his voice a little when quoting someone. His American accent for quotes by Benjamin Franklin reminded me of the actor who did Lee Scoresby’s voice in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I loved it!

Source: Publisher
Purchase this book: Blackstone | Book Depository | IndieBound | Audible

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  1. Sounds eye opening and like something I could enjoy with my husband. Great review.

  2. I have a Jackson-narrated book coming up soon on my To-Be-Listened pile: "Just My Type"; I've never heard him before, although the sample seems good. I notice he reads "We Bought a Zoo" by Benjamin Mee, which I liked as a print book.


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