I am starting a new and occasional series called "everyday reading," which for me means trade books that I read before bed. I recently finished Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air, having checked it out from the public library. It is a wide-ranging book centered on Joseph Priestley, the eighteenth century scientist, preacher, and rhetorical theorist (okay I added that last part, but he was!) whose quarters next to a brewpub led to his discovery of oxygen.
Now, I happen to have more than a passing interest in Priestley, having just finished an article co-authored with Cory Holding about Priestley's material rhetoric (and also Gilbert Austin's), and so I approach this book with more than just passing interest. In the course of researching for that article, I read many of Priestley's letters (which Johnson deals with in some depth) and especially focused on his treatises on electricity and his scientific reports of his invention and subsequent refinement of the process of carbonating water. Many of the stories Johnson tells were therefore already familiar to me. But that didn't make them any less interesting. The overall point of this book has to do with the virtues of pursuing knowledge for knowledge's sake. Priestley certainly wasn't in science for the money, otherwise he would have tried to patent his carbonated water process instead of blabbing excitedly about it to everybody such that someone called Schweppes (the one whose name is still on your soda water bottles) ended up securing the rights. Nor was Priestley exclusively a scientist. Johnson makes a big deal about eighteenth-century intellectual culture, its coffeehouses overflowing with (very) public intellectionsls, and its scientific societies.
The book is also curious and even a little tortured (I think) because it has to fulfill that trade function and tell a story that relates Priestley to America's founding fathers. It's not hard to do--Priestley was, after all, good friends with Benjamin Franklin, and the two traded notes on their electricity experiments for some years. But that story falls a little flat next to the story that Johnson so obviously wants to--and ultimately does--tell: the story about a lively, connected intellect, and about the kinds of ecologies that fosters such intellect. These ecologies are human (his friends from the societies), spatial (coffeehouses, laboratories, and pubs), and very obviously material and animal (lilting mint sprigs and scorched cabbage heads, suffocating mice and the occasional unfortunate cat). And Johnson's love for storytelling shows on every page.