For a month I have been devouring The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. It tells the story of scientist Alexander von Humboldt’s love for science and nature, describing in exciting detail all the countries that he visited and all of his achievements.
I carried it down to South America intending to read it on the plane, but sleep prevented that. Then I brought it back home to the US, where it sat on the bedside table of my aunt’s house in Virginia for three weeks while I hung out with my cousins.
So many distractions emerged that I was not able to get to it until June, and it gripped me at once. Including compelling sketches and visuals of his journeys, it made me somewhat nostalgic for a time when there was more to discover.
Von Humboldt was in love with science, and had a level of concentration for his projects that I envy. After a tour of South America, he spent every free moment writing an account of his journey and discoveries that spanned several books, which I intend to read at some point.
Science has never been one of my fortes, but as I read The Invention of Nature I wondered whether that may have been different if I’d learned hands-on like he did. I found myself itching to dig in the ground with him for an interesting beetle, or to scale mountains that strike awe in me today.
His love for nature might be strong as my love for literature. What I feel is a physical need to always have a book with me; what he felt was a physical need to discover the truth of the world. They’re different subjects, but the passion is similar, and isn’t truth still truth, whether it is in the pages of a book?
Some of the things von Humboldt did make me smile, like when he promised the Empress Alexandra that he would find her diamonds in the Russian mines, and showed up with dozens of them.
He rightly believed slavery to be immoral, and spent his entire life as an abolitionist. While he got along well with American presidents, he constantly lamented that, at the time, it did not seem that slavery would be abolished.
There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.Alexander von Humboldt
Von Humboldt wrote tirelessly on the broad subjects of nature and science, until he became too old to travel anymore. At this point, heartbreakingly, he began to forget what he himself had said.
Nonetheless, he became a hero, and the world mourned when he died. He had become the trusted voice on science; he inspired who we consider to be the greats of nature writing, like Darwin and John Muir.
I love books about historical figures, and I am grateful that this one exists. More people should know about Alexander von Humboldt and all the things he did to contribute to our knowledge today.
Until recently, I didn’t have a “favorite” genre when it came to books; this past year, I’ve discovered that, aside from the classics, I most enjoy history and historical fiction. I want to read about figures that changed the world, even finding obscure heroes that should be known. Perhaps it stems from an innate desire to someday, somehow, change the world myself.
My focus has therefore shifted to history as well as fantasy, and I’m eager to explore these two genres. Fantasy makes me dream; history makes me grateful– or, in certain situations, humbles me.
I recommend The Invention of Nature because I think more people should love their work in the way hat von Humboldt did. He was the very first person to see many remarkable things that we take for granted today.
Though it might seem as if everything in the world has been discovered, there is always some marvelous thing that needs to be seen for the first time, if not by the world, than by the person looking.
Do you have a historical hero that you think should come to light? Give me history book recommendations; I beg you, I can’t get enough of it!