Book Review: The Invention of Air

Among my favorite things in San Francisco is Green Apple Books. My favorite thing about Green Apple Books is their “New Arrivals” section, which features the latest books sold to them (they are primarily a second-hand book store), and you can typically find newly-released books at deep discount. On my last trip there, a couple weeks ago, I was able to pick up Steven Johnson’s latest, The Invention of Air, before it had been officially released. This is because Green Apple seems to be the favored secondhand store among SF’s book critics.

I’ve been reading Steven Johnson since before he wrote books — he was one of the founders of FEED, one of those four-letter original content sites from Ye Olde Webbe. His first book, Interface Culture, was a primary inspiration when launched, and I’ve read every one of his books except Everything Bad is Good For You (which is probably his bestseller, but which I felt I didn’t need to read after reading so much about it online in and magazines).

Steven has a knack for covering subjects that directly interest me, whether interface design, complexity theory, cognitive science, or city planning. He’s the closest to the public intellectual I think I would be if I weren’t too afraid to stop earning a paycheck and instead wrote books and pursued interesting subjects for a living.

It’s probably because of my kinship with his subject matter that I’m particularly critical of his work. Looking back over recent posts, there’s my review of The Ghost Map which called into question his boosterism of cities, and my frustration at a talk he gave on The Long Zoom, where it felt like he was stretching in order to make a point.

And it’s with that critical eye I read The Invention of Air, a not-biography of Joseph Priestley, most famous for “discovering” oxygen. My criticism makes me a little uneasy — I can’t say I know Steven well, but I have interacted with him some over the last 10 or so years (he even spoke on a panel of mine at South by Southwest in 2000 (scroll to March 17)), and he even twittered his interest in my thoughts. All I can hope is, if he reads this, he takes it with the constructiveness I intend!

I say “not-biography” because although Priestley is main subject of the work, it only focuses on a few key events in his life. I also say “not-biography” because Air is confused about just what kind of book it wants to be. It addresses everything from ecosystems theory to the founding of America, from Priestley’s experiments with gases to how he was the subject of much discussion between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in their famous epistolary exchange in their later years — and does this all in just over 200 pages.

As such, I walked away not knowing exactly what was Steven’s point. I think what really drove him wasn’t Priestley per se, but instead how Priestley’s story supports Steven’s “Long Zoom” theory of history, which disputes standard historical narratives (“Great Man”, “movement”) and says that the only way to appreciate history and biography is by understanding actions at a number of scales, from the micro to the macro. This was implicit in The Ghost Map, which went from the cholera bacteria, up to the human transmitters, and up again to the infrastructure of cities. He makes it explicit here because he’s clearly frustrated by standard historical practice. The problem is that the narrative pretty much stops at the point of Long Zoom explanation, and it signals the first moment of confusion for the reader — just what am I supposed to be taking away?

The other thing that makes me think that Priestley wasn’t really the point is that, after reading it, I still have very little understanding of the man. I know some events from his life, and how he touched others, but I left Air without a sense of what kind of person Priestley was (apart from optimistic and friendly). And I think that’s because Steven felt compelled to cover too wide a range of material for such a small book. If this were a meaty 600-800 page tome, he could have done justice to all the book’s components, and probably marry it with a novelistic style. Instead, at 200 pages, we end up getting a book of ideas more than a book about people, and as such, it’s pretty bloodless.

Now, I look a good book of ideas — and if that’s what it’s gonna be, own it from beginning to end. Steven’s Emergence is a book of ideas, and a brilliant one at that, and probably still his most essential book. He made complexity theory engrossing and approachable, and tied it into a set of things that really mattered. It also happened to be his first “Long Zoom” work. But, like Ghost Map, it was implicit. And I think such implicitness would serve Steven better. I think the concern for making a “Long Zoom” history/biography got in the way of delivering a strong narrative that compelled the story forward. For a historical text, simply tell the story, and let us readers realize the connective structure — you don’t need to do the meta-thinking for us.

My favorite part of Air is the retelling of Priestley’s experiments with a sprig of mint, candles, and mice, the first hint that plants exhale a substance that allows candles to keep burning, animals to keep breathing. And Steven’s point that this is essentially the beginning of ecosystems theory, presaging the Gaia hypothesis by about 200 years, is exciting. (I also love that it’s Ben Franklin who is the first to draw the systems inference from Priestley’s experiment). Had the book remained focused on air and such natural systems, I probably would be less critical.

However, the book continues discussing Priestley’s religious and political life, and his role in informing the thoughts of America’s founding fathers, beginning with Franklin (they got to know one another when Franklin lived in London) and then John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And a lot of effort is made connecting Priestley to early American political thought, though it’s based largely on how frequently he’s cited by Adams and Jefferson in their letters — letters written after Priestley’s death, and when both men are essentially retired from public life. It comes across as quite an overselling of Priestley’s influence — yes, it’s interesting that he probably made some impact, but, really, Priestley’s impact was relatively small compared to all the things which influenced early American ideology. Whereas his scientific legacy remains importantly influential to this day, there’s little that connects his religious or political thought to contemporary times. In a book of this size, such discourse should have been treated as an epilogue of interest, not as warranting half of the text.

Now, saying that, I’m violating one of Steven’s key tenets, which is that you can’t separate the scientific from the religious and political in Priestley’s life, nor could you in the educated life of the times. But, really, the religious and political work simply isn’t as compelling as the scientific, because it has had dramatically less impact. And again, this calls into question, just what is the central thesis of the Air — is it the Long Zoom, or the importance of consilience across science, religion, and politics? I think trying to address both weakens each argument.

OK. I’m done writing about this for now. (This is the third pass I’ve made at this post.)