The Discoverers is the first in Daniel Boorstin’s “knowledge trilogy.” (The others are The Creators and The Seekers.) This book, more than 700 pages long in small type, describes the progress of the inventors and explorers of Western civilization, beginning with ancient Greece and Rome and continuing through the beginning of the 20th century. Boorstin writes about how inquisitive, persistent, brave, and intelligent people have continued to try to find out about the world around us, and about our own interesting selves, since history began.
Rather than do a simple chronological history, the book is divided into four sections: Time, The Earth and the Seas, Nature, and Society. Time addresses the history of clocks and the process of cutting up our days and years into pieces. (It never occurred to me that — duh — you’d need something other than a sundial at night, so people were making things like water clocks very early on.) Reliable calendars depended on knowing astronomy and geography and mathematics. A reliable clock, with a spring, made navigation possible. And then, of course, navigation opened up the whole world. Boorstin talks about the Mongol Empire and how they opened the way to the East for a few decades before the land curtain came down again; the way Christian dogma messed up mapmaking for centuries; the influence of the Vikings; and the discovery of new flora and fauna during the age of exploration.
This leads easily into the section on Nature. Boorstin explores the importance of experimental science — it wasn’t always the case that people used their senses to learn about the world around them. Slowly, personal observation and the nearly-miraculous invention of the microscope replaced the tyranny of Galen, a Greek physician whose dictates about the human body had been reigning since the third century CE. The Royal Society spread discoveries by letter and the Philosophical Transactions, and people started striving to be first to get credit for a new piece of knowledge (especially Newton, who sounds like a total pill.) We began to catalogue everything in Creation.
The section on Society is the most higgledy-piggledy (as perhaps you’d expect. Is Society more higgledy-piggledy than Nature? Discuss.) It begins with the art of Memory (one of the Muses!) which was largely lost when printing began. Then there’s a piece on the development of the discipline of history over time, and the discovery of prehistory, archaeology, and related sciences like paleography and sphragistics. (Ask me to tell you about sphragistics! I looked it up!) Finally, there’s a brief section on anthropology, demography and statistics, economics (Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes in about three pages), and the atom.
There are a lot of things to like about this book. It’s written in congenial prose, with lots of anecdotes about the people involved. I thoroughly enjoyed, for instance, reading about Captain James Cook, who was sent (among other things) to prove there was no antarctic continent. It was a surprise to me that as recently as the origins of the United States, we still didn’t know whether there was any land at the South Pole. Cook was perhaps the greatest negative discoverer. I also enjoyed reading about Linnaeus, who shocked the scientific community with his unabashed descriptions of the sexuality of plants. Prurient, indeed! The Discoverers has a tremendous amount to say about the excitement of explorers and inventors and how they initiated change.
There are a few things that disappointed me, though. The scope of this book is so broad — well over 5000 years of history — that Boorstin can only touch on Great Men, most of whom are so Great that I already knew about them. There were some exceptions, of course, but for the most part this is Columbus, Vespucci, Galileo, Copernicus, Prince Henry the Navigator, Leeuwenhoek, Linnaeus — not small figures with unexpected contributions. I appreciated the detail and the anecdotes, but I’d have liked to learn more.
Speaking of which, this book is over 700 pages long (did I mention?) and there is not one single woman in it. Not, that is to say, as an inventor, an explorer, a scientist, a mapmaker, an author, or a seeker after knowledge. No Hypatia. No Marie Curie. No Lise Meitner. No Ada Lovelace. No Emilie du Chatelet or Sofia Kovalevskaya or Maria Sibylla Merian. I suppose I should mention that there were a few wives here and there. For instance, Boorstin points out that Michael Faraday’s wife Sarah Bernard “never shared the scientific interests that kept him awake nights, but said she was happy to be ‘the pillow of his mind.'” (!) I do not demand parity (after all, it takes a room of one’s own) but in 700 pages, it became clear that Boorstin’s subtitle (A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself) was deliberate.
I was also not very comfortable with Boorstin’s occasional side trips to China or to Islamic cultures. His approach is to ask, “Why didn’t this culture engage in world exploration/ invent the printing press/ have mechanical clocks?” The implied, and sometimes the explicit, answer is always, “Because something in their culture prevented them from doing it the way we do.” But that is not how different cultures work. There isn’t one cultural norm that all other cultures would match if there weren’t internal obstacles. You can’t explain away cultural difference that way, or even adequately explain why a culture might not instantly adapt your wonderful invention once they see it. Cultures grow up organically for all sorts of reasons that I don’t have time to explain, including locally available foods, religions, trade and relationships with nearby nations, language, customs, kinship structures, government, and on and on. It makes their whole world view different, priorities and all. It’s a bit like asking me, “Why haven’t you succeeded at being a high-powered lawyer?” Because I never wanted to be one, is part of the reason why.
So. Pros and cons. This was a good, readable, interesting book full of anecdote and detail about the inventive people who have made Western Civilization what it is. But if I could, I’d have made it more well-rounded.