Winner of the Costa Biography Award 2015. Winner of the LA Times Book Prize 2015 (Science and Technology). Shortlisted for the Independent Book Week Award 2016.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist: more things are named after him than anyone else. There are towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the ocean current that runs along the South American coast; there's a penguin, a giant squid - even the Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.
His colourful adventures read like something out of a Boy's Own story: Humboldt explored deep into the rainforest, climbed the world's highest volcanoes and inspired princes and presidents, scientists and poets alike. Napoleon was jealous of him; Simon Bolívar's revolution was fuelled by his ideas; Darwin set sail on the Beagle because of Humboldt; and Jules Verne's Captain Nemo owned all his many books. He simply was, as one contemporary put it, 'the greatest man since the Deluge'.
©2015 Andrea Wulf. Recorded by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC (P)2015 Highbridge, a division of Recorded Books
"Dazzling." (Literary Review)
"Brilliant." (Sunday Express)
"Extraordinary and gripping." (New Scientist)
"A superb biography." (The Economist)
"An exhilarating armchair voyage." (Giles Milton, Mail on Sunday)
I rarely read biographies & I normally find C18 European history very dull. But this book has awakened my interest. Most amazing fact about Humbolt (in my opinion): the huge number of gigantic ally famous people he met, indeed was acquainted with. A real science adventure story. But then ... Humbolt himself gets into a slightly shambling old age, & so does this book. There's a long tail, with mini-biographies of some of the main people influenced by Humbolt. That's still interesting but ... Well, less so.
I knew about Humboldt, the last "universal genius" since my childhood in Germany and always wanted to know more about him. That is now done and much more than that.
Andrea Wulf doesn't limit himself to a very intelligent and insightful narrative of Humboldt's life and work, but goes way beyond: he shines a bright light on people that have been influenced by the master, one, two and even three generations further along.
I'm a tad less enthusiastic about David Drummond's performance. I don't care much for his voice (but that's no fault of his, just my taste) and got quite irritated by some words he mispronounces. Hi-mal-ea instead of Himalaya being just one recurring example.
All in all, a book I'll be listening to again in a year or two, a rare phenomenon for me.
A man for our season because he predicted the problems our planet would be in if our stewardship of the earth's resources were not wisely and scientifically managed.
I would recommend the book, but I would warn the listener that the voice of the reader is unexpressive. Worth sticking with it for the content.
I didn't now how important Humboldt was to the development of theories about the natural world - brilliant!
No laughing or crying, but I was fascinated.
Yes. I did not know anything about this extraordinary man, apart from the Current named after him.
I can't think of a comparable book.
A long, detailed account. Well read. I will listen again soon.
An interesting story about one of the most influential people on the environmental movement and understanding nature.
I was perhaps expecting more as it won the Royal Society book prize, but I felt the book neither fulfilled in creating a compelling personal story of Humboldts story or of his seminal thoughts in reconstructing a whole scientific field. Arguably the best written bits are the influence on other scientists and authors. Worth it for those who have never heard of Humboldt.
Narration was clear, but too monotone for me.
Smith of Arabia
Loved it. It's great when you learn something new, surprising and important and that is what this book has done for me. Humboldt is the father of ecology and much else besides. Realising that he was concerned 200 years ago about what we generally consider modern demonstrates quite powerfully how poor we are at resisting short termism and yet how quickly we have turned local problems into long-term global disasters. A really good book about an amazing, and amazingly under appreciated, man. This book is also a very good look at his influence as reflected in the notable scientists and scholars that followed him. One last thing, it really makes you value nature.
Great story about Humboldt who should be more widely known. The book does well to explore the people influenced by him including Bolivar, Darwin and more. The strength of the book though is in ripping the yarns of the 18/19th century and the world which he transformed.
Writer and audiobook reviewer.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) - how much do we in Britain know about him? He was a 'visionary and thinker far ahead of his time who revolutionised the way we see the natural world' and this, his biography, is truly, truly, tremendous, brilliantly researched and intellectually rich. It won well-deserved huge acclaim and awards in 2015, including the Costa Biography prize.
In his long and staggeringly energetic life, Humboldt's achievements were enormous. The son of a wealthy Prussian aristocrat, he was able to finance his first mind-blowing 5-year expedition to Latin America in 1799 where he broke the mould of other adventurers by striving to communicate with the indigenous tribes and to understand their relationship with Nature. Nature was the key to Humboldt's life work. 'Nature is a living whole,' he said. 'not a dead aggregate.' Many years before anyone else he established that every living thing on earth is connected to another as though by a thread, and that human beings cause climate change through deforestation and excessive irrigation. He foresaw the catastrophic effects of cutting timber for the building of Europe's navies and reported even the destruction wrought by gases released into the atmosphere from centres of industry.
The whole story of Humboldt's enthralling and exciting life is densely packed with detail and there are equally stimulating side chapters on those whom Humboldt influenced including Goethe (who you would never have guessed had a collection of 18,000 rocks!), Bolivar, Darwin, Jefferson, Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Haeckel and Marsh (whose wife who suffered from a painful back complaint accompanied her husband on expeditions carried on a board).
The narration is American with the American pronunciation of many words very different from the English. An American narration is appropriate however since Humboldt visited England only briefly, whilst in America his stature is huge with hundreds of places and geographical features named after him. I must admit that I found the narration monotonous because the tone was unvaried. But the content is so brilliant, I was happy to listen.
Pertinent ecological history
Oh dear - this is where the criticism comes in, on what is otherwise an excellent book.
Firstly the positive - the narrator is very clear in his diction, which is good.
I don't like American accents generally, but they are not a problem for me normally. But the narrator has some really strange pronunciations, which I am sure are not "standard" American English. "Himalya" for the Himalaya is bad enough, but with a common word like "Parisian" I was driven to distraction.
Also there was not really sufficient feeling in the narrator's work - he was just narrating.
The early chapters, when Humbolt was carrying out his explorations of South America, were by far the most interesting - it was fascinating to hear that issues such as climate change were being considered two hundred years ago, when many of today's politicians remain unconvinced.
I would certainly recommend this. I am not of a scientific bent, but I have thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would have enjoyed it more with a better chosen narrator.
"An engaging, interesting read on a fascinating man"
A very enjoyable read about a fastinating man who's life was well lived and who has had far reaching influence during his lifetime and to present day. A vital part of anyone's reading collection who is interested in science writing and the environment. Michael Hall -Environmental photographer
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