I’ve developed a habit of searching the best books of the year lists starting around November to help pick out my reading for the holidays and new year, and so far said habit has yet to fail me. While I was not quite as madly in love with 2015’s offerings as 2014’s (see All the Light We Cannot See and Station Eleven), 2015 rose to the occasion with one of my new favorite biographies (definitely in my top 5 list for the genre), Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.
Born into a wealthy Prussian family in September of 1769, Alexander von Humboldt is the most famous man you’ve never heard of. That wasn’t always the case, though. The hundred year anniversary of his birth was celebrated by millions around the world, from Europe and the US to South America, Russia, and beyond. And that Humboldt Street, Park, Avenue, town, mountain, lake, river, monument, whatever that you frequently pass and vaguely wonder who this Humboldt guy must be? Basically, they are all named after this guy (including Humboldt Park in Chicago–upon reading that, I had a very excited ah-ha moment).
To begin to highlight all of his achievements in this blog post would be impossible (which is why, of course, you must read Wulf’s excellent book), but here are just a few: Humboldt, overcome with wanderlust, explored the Caribbean, South America from the Amazon to the Andes, and Central Asia all the way to Mongolia, examining, collecting, describing, cataloging every plant, animal, and mineral he could find. And along the way he hypothesized and proved that the ecosystems of the earth were interconnected, as opposed to separated, essentially establishing the field of ecology as we know it today, predicting climate change, and founding modern environmentalism. Additionally, his work, Cosmos, became one of the seminal texts of its time, and Humboldt directly influenced major figures of science, art, philosophy, and politics including (but not limited to) Charles Darwin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, and John Muir. While these are some of the most famous people who came into contact with Humboldt, his work and his life impacted scores of others across the world, and it is a shame that we today know hardly more than his name.
Wulf is a gifted and acclaimed writer of scientific biography, and she outdid herself this time. A meticulous researcher, she has a gift of capturing both the details and the big picture of a person with equal skill and grace. My favorite biographies are the ones that keep me engaged and eager to read–I often describe this style of non-fiction writing as novelistic, but in this case, that would be wrong. It is very clear that Wulf is not writing in the style of a novel, but her understanding of her both charming and crotchety subject allows her to paint his life in narrative moments and meetings that draw the reader in and support her overarching arguments about Humboldt and his legacy. I also appreciate that she provides just enough background information about his childhood for us to understand the man he becomes. While there are times where I like a lot of background, in this case the paired down “Beginnings” section allows her to focus the audience on Humboldt’s achievements and character much earlier.
Humboldt is clearly both a tricky and rich subject to tackle, and Wulf does so with aplomb. Whether or not you have any interest in science, the environment, or history, you should read this book. To put it like this: one of my most reluctant learners saw me reading this book during lunch one day. He asked what I was reading, and I told him a little about it. Two days later, he had his own copy and had read half of it already. (It took me a week to get through half!) It was the most excited I have ever seen him when talking about anything. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.