by James Burke ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 12, 1996
Another of Burke's (The Axemaker's Gift, 1995, etc.) customary grand tours of the human experience, this time unraveling the serendipitous effects of innovation. We live, Burke asserts, in a ""dynamic web of change."" It is the very expression of our existence: As we act and are acted upon, the things we create--from thoughts to lawnmowers--have myriad unintended consequences, sometimes way down the road, or in distant lands, with inventions or ideas intermingling in unexpected or obscure but nonetheless influential ways. How have grave-robbing, the safety match, and early copy paper been linked in the great historical flow? Burke draws the connections, not just in straight narrative fashion, but also in cross-references (or ""gateways,"" as he calls them), identifying when the path of one innovation intersects the path of another. These gateways point readers to other sections of the book, jumping forward and back, establishing the connectedness of it all. And it can be good fun, this bopping about the narrative, pinballing between ideas and discoveries, creating the web: discovering how logging denuded Michigan, but also gave rise to the gold rush; how the sinking of the Allied fleet off Balaklava in 1854 influenced the creation of McAdam (later known as macadam) roads in London. Burke's story can also be read in linear mode, start to finish, with equal pleasure, one new wrinkle tripping over another as necessity, intuition, and dumb luck become the mothers of invention: An accident by a Dutch inventor in 1620 helped spawn the New Model Army by way of the female cochineal beetle. Burke's sweep is vast. Kant gets a mulling, as do Freud, the Brothers Grimm, and the Visigoth king Recared; so too do gyroscopes, lighthouses, the permanent wave in a woman's hair. Thoughtful, articulate, titillating. Burke pulls off that neatest of tricks: to amuse and instruct.
Pub Date: Aug. 12, 1996
Page Count: 320
Publisher: "Little, Brown"
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1996
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