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The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change

by John Glassie

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59448-871-9
Publisher: Riverhead

Biography of 17th-century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher.

In his introduction, former New York Times Magazine contributing editor Glassie (Bicycles Locked to Poles, 2005) begins by describing the now-forgotten polymath as nothing less than “a champion of wonder, a man of awe-inspiring erudition and inventiveness, who...helped advance the cause of humankind.” Born in what is now central Germany in 1602, Kircher entered the Jesuit order as a seminarian, teaching mathematics, philosophy and other subjects, before eventually becoming ordained as a priest. He wrote more than 30 books on Egyptian hieroglyphics, volcanoes, optics, Chinese history and more. However, even by the standards of his time, Kircher was often completely wrong, and his scientific books were sometimes “valued more for the entertainment than the information it provided.” This did not stop his books from being “read, if not always respected, by the smartest minds of the time.” Kircher and his work enjoyed a modicum of fame during his lifetime, but even before his death, his reputation was already in decline. Glassie does his best to place his subject in the larger context of the age, but as the book soldiers on, it becomes increasingly difficult to see why Kircher warrants a full biography. Links to his contemporaries often feel tacked-on, such as the description of Kircher’s relationship with Queen Christina of Sweden. In the case of Sir Isaac Newton, these links are stretched extremely thin, as Glassie claims that “[t]here is no way to know if Newton read Kircher, but it’s very likely that he did.”

A competently written but nonessential biography.