Led by the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, the Lunar Society of Birmingham were a group of eighteenth-century amateur experimenters who met monthly on the Monday night nearest to the full moon. Echoing to the thud of pistons and the wheeze of snorting engines,Jenny Uglow’s vivid and swarming group portrait brings to life the inventors, artisans and tycoons who shaped and fired the modern world.
If ever there was a book to celebrate the exhilaration of investigation, that infectious enthusiasm for knowledge, then this is surely a strong contender. In an age where amateurs could be at the forefront of breakthroughs in the sciences, the Lunar Society were keen to share knowledge which brought on new trains of thought and enquiry, as they dared to dream the fantastical.
These pioneers were to explore many different facets of our world; through botany, geology, physics, medicine, art, literature and so on, as well as profit (for themselves and country), politics, and market forces. The group also felt the full force of the beginnings of the burgeoning, awkward relationship between science and religion.
The scope of the book is impressive, each of these men could have had a book devoted to themselves so combining them into one overlapping narrative is a monumental feat. To keep things fresh, we move between the main players frequently, it helps with both pace and the narrative structure, and allows the huge amount of innovations to be explored in their (more or less) chronological order.
It feels genuinely exciting to follow these lives and the societal changes that stem from their drive. The book doesn’t just focus on the professional but humanises them with plenty of details about their personal lives, which are as eccentric as their work lives. It reveals heart and a resonance that is lacking in some other – drier – books on this era. Continue reading “The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow”
Why do so many feel compelled to risk their lives climbing mountains? During the climbing season, one person a day dies in the Alps, and more people die climbing in this season in Scotland than they do on the roads. Mountains of the Mind is a fascinating investigation into our emotional and imaginative responses to mountains and how these have changed over the last few centuries. It is rich with literary and historical references and punctuated by beautifully written descriptions of the author’s own climbing experiences. There are chapters on glaciers, geology, the pursuit of fear, the desire to explore the unknown and the desire to get to the summit, and the book ends with a gripping account of Mallory’s attempt on Everest. Mountains of the Mind is a brilliant synthesis of climbing memoir and cultural history.
This book is much more than a simple history of mountaineering, it’s a venture into the psychological history of Westerners (mainly the British) and how mountains ( European for the most part, with a dash of Himalayas) have imprinted themselves on our consciousness, changed our attitudes, and inspired great feats.
…and it is a physical as well as a cerebral horror, for to acknowledge that the hard rock of a mountain is vulnerable to the attrition of time is of necessity to reflect on the appalling transience of the human body.
The book starts off with the author describing how, in childhood, he discovered climbing through reading books. This beginning is written in such a wonderfully literary way and engages straight away and which carries on throughout this engrossing chronicle. MacFarlane’s enthusiasm is infectious from the off, each page is crammed full of interesting facts and anecdotes. It’s a true love letter to the mountains but also a warning over the obsessions that come with it.
Like so many writers including Mark Twain, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Bryon, Dr Johnson, Keats, Ruskin, Coleridge, and Tennyson; whose lyrical observations have inspired millions, the reader’s imagination is inflamed by the talk of crevasses with snow that fell several centuries ago, perfectly preserved bodies, ice caverns, strange creatures and so on. It’s easy to visualise the look, age, and height of these natural edifi, and feel the author’s deep love and sober respect for the mountains, through his words. Continue reading “Mountains of the Mind – Robert Macfarlane”