When I was first invited to join the Amazon Vine program, I was sure it’s a scam: Amazon wants to send you free products to keep and enjoy, so long as you promise to review 75% of the items you receive. I contacted Amazon directly and to my surprise, it was no scam. Now, 5 free books and a few occasional product samples later, I believe the vine program is for real and I love it. The program offers mostly books, and often you find them in early uncorrected manuscript form for limited distribution.
Every month, I review the newsletter and even for free books, I exercise selective approach. The book synopsis, title, story – it has to speak to me on some level. Why waste my choice on an average free book if it could be a great free book? And so I read every single editorial review and wait to see if the right mood strikes me. The irony is how my selective approach may render the reader to think, falsely, that I have a lot of time to spare – but as with everything with life, a little planning ahead only saves us heaps of time later. And I, like you, haven’t a minute to spare on something that is not fully worth my while.
“The Invention of Air” has a fantastic topic and story, so I make room for forgiveness where style and prose lack. The story of Joseph Priestley, whom I am not proud to hear about for the first time in this book, is remarkable. He is an educator, theologian, philosopher, politician, but at heart, a scientist and an inventor through all the turbulence of his life. Biographies are in general captivating – I much prefer reading about a person who lived on earth than in some one’s imagination – although I am passionate about timeless fiction. A biography, however, that puts your brain to work – scientific experiments, hypothesis, results, and the meaning of discovery in an age where little was known about electricity, physics, chemistry and especially the air we breathe, makes the mark on higher levels.
Among all else, I found it delightful how the invention of coffee brought about a tremendous boost to productivity, replacing alcohol as the standard drink of the day. While not invented by Priestley, it certainly impacted his social life. Coffee served as one attraction but the coffee house of London with the divinity students, book sellers, musicians, poets, scientists, was a gathering place to think about and loudly discuss topics of significance such as the limits of religious orthodoxy or advancements in scientific experiments in some make-shift lab or the future of government and the end of the monarchy and freedom of the people. Later in life, Ben Franklin tells Joseph Priestly how sorely he missed the days at the coffee houses in London – which leads the author to grant Franklin a more British citizenship than the American one we bestow on him today.
Johnson does one thing very well – he gives us the true essence of the character of Joseph Priestley. To fully appreciate this man’s fearlessness and sense of optimism, we follow him at the age of 61 on his voyage from Britain to US in what can be described as nauseating ship travels. Reading the first chapter of the book on what horrific afflictions must be endured by the human body and spirit, not to mention the very likely risk of death, was more than sufficient to convince me that a man in his condition must be perfectly insane to take on such a journey with his wife. Insane or optimism are in the beholder’s eyes – and it is clear that the infinite comforts of our age have spoiled us beyond comprehension of what was a standard affliction just over 200 years ago.
The truly prolific life of Joseph Priestley parallels his good friend and confidante, Ben Franklin. He took extreme pride in his budding relationship with Ben Franklin, and enjoyed few things more than sharing with him the excitements of every revelation in his lab experiments. Advancement of science was truly the driving force in Priestley’s life, and his tireless experimentation and copious publications at every stage of his life prove his ever burning passion for understanding nature and advancing humanity with the pursuit of knowledge. Even Ben Franklin who was all things Renaissance-like felt discouraged during the political upheavals and found it hard to attribute any significance to Priestley’s updates or his own pursuit of science; politics consumed Franklin during the American Revolution and for the rest of his life, he was not able to return to science as devoutly as he had once belonged with it. Politics and the times were not kind to Priestley on a few particular occasions either, and yet he found an escape – a haven, a comfort in the pursuit of truth, and to his last day, remained productive, optimistic and forward-thinking.
Reading is the best pastime for an active mind! If you like to see the other book reviews, check the index of In Print.
Experimentations in Priestley’s lab comprise the recurring theme in this book. His best discovery happens in one of his earliest experiments – and as with most things, is somewhat accidental. Very little was known about the composition and characteristics of air and this was of utmost interest to the young Priestley. He would submit countless rats and small rodents to confined jars and set the timer to measure how long before they “expire” – all of which at one point or another would – and then one day, he experiments with a sprig of mint, which subsequently refuses to die. In fact, after keeping the mint in the jar for sometime, the rats and rodents joining in its company would somehow live longer. While he did not understand the invisible process in place, he had stumbled across the well-known photosynthesis. It is not until years later when peer scientists repeated his experiments and fully explained the process but Priestley can claim some of the credit with his tenacious experimentation, not to mention the few sacrificial animals along the way.
Priestley’s ability to form close relationships with prolific men was not limited to Ben Franklin. He formed an equally strong and close bond with Thomas Jefferson and played a central role in providing Jefferson the foundation of Christian faith as well as recommendations for him on how best to run the country as the 3rd President of US. Jefferson put a great deal of trust and credibility where Priestley was concerned; he was a strong advocate for him to the point of disagreeing with John Adams in Priestly’s defense. The disagreements later became a sour spot in the relationship of Jefferson and Adams, and they never really recovered their initial bond. Oddly enough, both men died on the same day and on the 5th anniversary of American Revolution – July 4th, 1826.
It is hard not to be impressed with life story of a single person with his vast accumulation of knowledge in numerous fields, his ability to form relationships with the Founding Fathers and his substantial contribution to humanity – but it is impossible not to be impressed by a man who is unflappable as his entire home and possessions, including his haven of laboratory, is destroyed and set to fire by rioters. This I found the most inspiring and enduring trait of Joseph Priestley’s character.
In letters that were found later describing the aforementioned dark night, Mary Priestley beautifully writes the following:
“Undaunted he heard the blows which were destroying the house and the laboratory that contained all his valuable and rare apparatus and their effects, which it had been the business of his life to collect and use….he, tranquil and serene, walked up and down the road with a firm yet gentle peace that evinced his entire self-possession, and a complete self-satisfaction and consciousness which rendered him thus firm and resigned under the unjust and cruel persecution of his enemies……Not one hasty or impatient expression, not one look expressive of murmur or complaint, not one tear or sigh escaped him; resignation and a conscious innocence and virtue seemed to subdue all these feelings of humanity”