The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf: Book Review

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The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf Book Cover
Title: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

My Synopsis:

Alexander von Humboldt was apparently one of our most influential scientists and yet history has largely forgotten him. Andrea Wulf sets out to explore Humboldt’s life, explorations, theories, and lasting influence in this well-researched book.

My Review:

I have to admit that I’m one of those who have never heard of Humboldt; or, if he my professors ever mentioned him in class, I’ve completely forgotten him. And that’s a shame because the man was so right about so very many things. He was brilliant and brought together many scientific disciplines in his theories in a time when scientists were becoming more and more specialized.

I don’t really read book synopses that well before picking up a book. I just glance to get a general idea so that the contents are more of a surprise to me and I form my own opinions. That usually serves me well. I think it hurt my rating by at least half a star in this case.

The book at first seems to go off on very long tangents about other historical figures–Simón Bolívar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, etc. I could not figure out why I was reading so many pages about the revolutions in South America in a book that was supposed to be a biography of a German scientist. I finally realized that the framework of the book echoes Humboldt’s own theories of connectedness. Duh. I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to finally click it all together. Once I finally got on the same page as the author, so to speak, I was more fully able to appreciate the tremendous amount of information she presents. Humboldt’s influence in so many areas really cannot be overstated.

He wrote about how alpine species have more in common with species much farther north than they do with species at the base of the mountain. He wrote about weather patterns. He planted seeds of ideas that led to the theories of evolution and continental drift. He was a proponent of true “liberty and justice for all” and even fostered revolutionary ideas. His travel/scientific writing founded the field of nature writing. He seems to be largely responsible for creating the fields of ecology and conservation biology. His interests, his influence, and his reach are almost immeasurable.

I have more thoughts floating around but they would be more appropriate for an essay than a review. I will say that I think a scientifically-minded book group would find a lot to discuss here.

Be prepared for apparent tangents but I do recommend this. I learned a lot and I’m glad that Andrea Wulf has written this book to rescue Humboldt from obscurity.

Recommended by:

Brona at This Reading Life

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  1. The idea of connectedness fascinates me. One of the best books I’ve read is Guns, Germs, and Steel.

    I’ve never heard of Humboldt either. How sad he isn’t recognized for his contribution to science.

  2. I do the same when it comes to a book. I glance at the cover, read a bit of the synopsis but hardly any more than a sentence or two and decide if the mood hits me if I want to read it! Enjoyed your summary. Have a great week.

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