A biography of the peerless 17th-century English writer and scientist that finds new relevance in his deeply observant, encyclopedic writings about man and nature.
Living in the same county as his subject, physician and philosopher Thomas Browne (1605-1682), English science writer Aldersey-Williams (Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body, 2013, etc.) became fascinated by Browne’s poise on the cusp of the modern, while still “happily in thrall to the ancient world and its mysteries.” His study of Browne’s work attempts to bring his subject back to engage current disputes about the place of religion in science, how to recognize and dispel “vulgar beliefs,” and how to face death. (Indeed, there is an imagined, somewhat corny interview between Browne and the author.) Browne’s sentences, borne of careful deliberation, natural observation, and personal confession, are masterpieces in themselves. They gained the admiration of an elite cadre of writers, such as Herman Melville (whose chapter on “Cetology” from Moby-Dick owes a great debt to Browne’s best-known opus Pseudodoxia Epidemica), Jorge Luis Borges, and W.G. Sebald (Aldersey-Williams’ ambulatory digressions, punctuated with curious photographs, are distinctly Sebald-ian). While Browne’s scientific work, steeped in the ancient writers, was too mysterious or wacky to be considered modern-day science (exceptions were his discovery of “Morgellons” disease and his obsession with the quincunx form in nature), his explorations of plants and animals produced all kinds of discoveries and, most importantly, words. Browne coined nearly 800 new words, which essentially opened a whole new way of speaking about the natural world—e.g., “electricity,” “medical,” “amphibious,” “incontrovertible,” and “ferocious.” In reintroducing this singular thinker and writer, which Aldersey-Williams calls his “obsession,” the author finds fresh insight.
An elegant, pleasantly obsessive study of a “life of tolerance, humour, serenity and untiring curiosity.”