WONDERLAND by Steven Johnson
Kirkus Star


How Play Made the Modern World
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An illumination of how civilization advances through the ways in which it plays.

Amusement, entertainment, and leisure are often seen as the byproducts of epochal change, yet Johnson (How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World, 2014, etc.) provides a compelling counterintuitive argument that the Industrial Revolution, democracy, and the computer age were all driven by diversions and appetites that historians too often ignore. “This book is an extended argument for that kind of clue: a folly, dismissed by many as a mindless amusement, that turns out to be a kind of artifact from the future,” writes the author, who contends that delight and novelty have been given short shrift by cultural historians. “This is a history of play, a history of the pastimes that human beings have concocted to amuse themselves from the daily grind of subsistence. This is a history of what we do for fun.” It’s a history of how mankind has been making musical instruments from bones for as many millennia as it has been making weapons and how devices such as the player piano led to the development of computer software. Johnson entertainingly shows how appetites for spices led to international exploration and colonial empires and how the ornamentation of fashion and jewelry spurred technological innovation and industry. He tells of the social revolutions that were hatched in taverns and coffeehouses, public spaces distinctly different from those where one worked, lived, or worshipped, and he suggests that commerce and consumption were not byproducts of the Industrial Revolution but driving forces. Johnson also shows the darker sides of colonial empires built on spices and of the shopping mall, which catered to consumption while threatening the inner city.

There’s an infectious spirit of delight in the prose, which matches the themes in a book that will engage even those not entirely convinced by its thesis to take a look from a different perspective.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 2016
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2016

Kirkus Interview
Steven Johnson
October 6, 2014

In How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson explores the history of innovation over centuries, tracing facets of modern life (refrigeration, clocks, and eyeglass lenses, to name a few) from their creation by hobbyists, amateurs, and entrepreneurs to their unintended historical consequences. Filled with surprising stories of accidental genius and brilliant mistakes—from the French publisher who invented the phonograph before Edison but forgot to include playback, to the Hollywood movie star who helped invent the technology behind Wi-Fi and Bluetooth—How We Got to Now investigates the secret history behind the everyday objects of contemporary life. View video >


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