The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: An exceptionally readable look at the man to whom we owe so much but who has largely been forgotten. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 496/14h3m||Date: October 2015|
|Publisher: John Murray|
|External links: Author's website|
Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin in 1769, the younger brother of Wilhelm von Humboldt who would become a Prussian minister but who is perhaps better remembered as a philosopher and linguist. The family was well-to-do and both brothers benefitted from an excellent education, although they lacked affection from their emotionally-distant widowed mother, but it was a legacy from her which would fund Alexander's first explorations. His first travels would be in Europe where he met and was influenced by people such as Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, who had travelled with Thomas Cook. But it was his travels in Latin America which would lay the foundations for his life's work.
Although Humboldt has had more places named after him than anyone else, he has largely been forgotten, perhaps because his name is not associated with a great discovery. His importance lies in his holistic approach to nature and the fact that he was the father of the environmental movement. He was the first person to talk about climate change and to point out exactly what man was doing to the planet. His ideas still shape our thinking: in fact it was difficult not to come to the conclusion that his ideas are now so obvious that we've largely forgotten the man behind them, but equally he was elusive even to those who knew him best.
Andrea Wulf's biography is exceptional. I have to declare a disinterest here: although I have a questioning mind so far as the environmental movement is concerned I have little interest in the natural sciences and I came to this book largely because it had won the Costa Biography Award 2015. I expected that the book would be intermittently interesting, but largely hard work. I couldn't have been more wrong: I was enthralled from the beginning. Wulf's style of writing is lively and engaging and it's not just her knowledge of Humboldt that's wide. She places him perfectly in his time and has a confidence about all that was happening in the world which he inhabited. Perhaps the most startling point for me was the way in which Humboldt was influenced by, and in his turn influenced others. The most obvious is Charles Darwin, who stood on Humboldt's shoulders, but there are extensive pieces on people such as Goethe, Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar. I was also surprised that the biography didn't finish at Humboldt's death: Wulf goes on to show the way in which he inspired people such as Charles Darwin, Henry Thoreau, George Marsh and John Muir. I finished the book a great deal wiser and with a list of points to follow up with further reading.
This is the point at which I usually thank the publishers for sending a copy of the book to the Bookbag, but I listened to an audio download, which I bought myself. The narrator was David Drummond. I was slightly annoyed by the occasional mispronunciation of English names (Derbysheer) but the voice was still good to listen to even after fourteen hours. He coped well with the German pronunciation which was extensive and I would be more than happy to listen to more from him.
As part of his travels Humboldt went to Russia. For a more recent journey you might enjoy Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene. For another Costa Award winner from 2015 we can recommend A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.
You could get a free audio download of The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf with a 30-day Audible free trial at Amazon.co.uk.
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