The Happy Passion: A Personal View of Jacob Bronowski by Anthony James

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The Happy Passion: A Personal View of Jacob Bronowski by Anthony James
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Genre: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A short look at the life and work of the scientist and presenter, best remembered for 'The Ascent of Man' TV documentary series.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 128 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Imprint Academic
ISBN: 978-1845402204

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Jacob Bronowski was a scientific administrator, poet, philosopher, dramatist, radio and TV personality, best remembered for the series 'The Ascent of Man'. This short book, about 90 pages long, is partly biographical sketch, partly – in fact largely – an overview of his major published works, occupying about two-thirds of the book. In the author's words, it is intended as a personal view of Bronowski as a philosopher.

The first chapter (or one might rather say essay), an introduction, establishes the personal link between the author and his subject. Though they never knew each other, a connection comes about through their shared view of the underlying pessimism and disillusionment of the last seventy years, which originated at Auschwitz. Bronowski himself claimed that he had lived through the two great catastrophes of the 20th century, namely the rise of Hitler in 1933 and the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945. The author's own visit to Auschwitz and the horrors of the exhibition there, a perpetual salutary reminder of 'lest we forget', leads him on one step of a personal odyssey through which he establishes a link with the scientist, via the last programme of 'The Ascent of Man'.

Next is a short biographical essay, beginning with Bronowski's birth in Poland in 1908, the move to Germany and then to Britain, drawing on comparisons with the novelist Joseph Conrad, the historian Eric Hobsbawm and others who followed a similar journey to settle in Britain. It culminates in what is described as his pessimistic words about the 'terrible loss of nerve' he sensed in Western society, which were echoed a couple of years later by similar pronouncements from Solzhenitsyn, attacking what he saw as its godless humanism and complacency, and his total immersion in the TV series which took its toll on his already failing health; he died suddenly at the age of 66. Oh yes, lest we forget, towards the end of his life there was also an interview on Michael Parkinson's show in which the latter wrote some years later of his replies to questions in 'beautifully constructed prose'.

Finally, he examines Bronowski's major works, the six books and the final radio broadcasts. It is from here that the title of the book comes, with a reference from 'The Ascent of Man' to the works of Hippocrates printed in the 16th century, in which the happy passion of the printer sits on the page as powerful as the knowledge. Moreover, he underlines Bronowski's ceaseless desire for his books to reach anyone who possessed a normal curiosity about the world, and hated the thought of would-be readers being put off by the notion that he was simply a philosopher, with all the pictures of dry and dusty baggage that conjures up. This last section ends with a cautionary note, echoing his awareness that Western civilisation would only endure if it remained intellectually alive, and warning that if it does not take the next steps in profound science, people in Africa or China will. Mankind needs optimism, a sense of adventure, and the faith that we have a future.

This is a thoughtful book about a fascinating man, as the author rightly says. It is perhaps all the better and more tightly focused for its brevity. I knew nothing about Bronowski before I started it, but having read it, I hope that somebody (perhaps Anthony James himself) will undertake the task of writing his biography before long.

Our thanks to Societas/Imprint Academic for providing Bookbag with a review copy.

For another popular science title, may we also recommend An Optimist's Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson.

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