Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Andrea Wulf - The Invention Of Nature (John Murray, 2015) ****

This is an incredible book, about an incredible person, written by a magesterial story-teller. Yes, we had heard about Alexander von Humboldt before (starting with 'Humboldt's Gift', the phenomenal novel by Samuel Below), but he remained some kind of vague and hard-to-place figure in my mind.

Andrea Wulf has brought him back to life, and how! With stylistic and compositorial mastership she recreates his life, as a well-to-do 18th century aristocratic boy interested in nature, with an exceptional drive to explore and observe. His mother's death comes as a liberation, and he spends his entire fortune on his travels to South America, where he explores everything he sees. His mind is also at the same time analytic and synthetic: he records everything, big and small in biology, stones and geography, clouds and weather conditions and temperature and height and all the rest that he notices, with absolute precision thanks to all his observation tools, and then he brings it all together in one big picture that demonstrates that everything is linked.

That is why the book is called "The Invention Of Nature", because he was the first person to see that everything is connected. He was the first to complain that logging the forests in South America would have disastrous effects on nature, that it would destroy the basic conditions for renewal. Interestingly enough, Humboldt himself seems to have been self-destructive in a way, pushing himself forward beyond the limits of his capital and physical possibilities. He even ventured to Siberia without official permission from the authorities, and he still went on despite an anthrax epidemic that killed everyone.

Humboldt was a legend in his own time, known and cherished by everyone, from school children to emperors. His works and his vision of nature inspired people like Darwin, Thoreau and of course also Jules Vernes, who used Humboldt's adventures as an inspiration for his novels.

Humboldt was also an ecologist and human rights activist (within limits ... he also understood the value of diplomacy when he needed money), and at the same time a wonderfully skilled draughtsman, who could draw what he saw in the most minute detail, including his geographical maps of plant life.

And to repeat my kudos : Andrea Wulf is an incredibly skilled narrator. Her topic is of course very interesting, yet the way this book is written and composed, is an achievement by itself.

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