Shelved: “Crowded with Genius” by James Buchan

Posted in European, Reading by Alex L. on March 5, 2010

In the past, I’ve done several reviews on this blog of books that I had just finished reading. But it often happens that I start a book without finishing it or shelve it for a while only to come back to it later (when I read The Brothers Karamazov, I repeated this process several times over the course of a year until I finally finished it). Well, I thought such “shelved books” deserve a review sometimes as well.

I have developed a habit recently where I go to the library or a bookstore and rove around the aisles browsing books at random for hours on end. This is more disturbing for me to do at a bookstore than at a library, because I am afraid that the managers will suspect me of being a shoplifter or loafer. Despite this, it amuses me to observe what books I naturally gravitate towards while giving my imagination free reign. I was at my local library in such a mood a couple of weeks ago when I picked up Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment – Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind by James Buchan.

This book interested me because I had heard about it while doing research for my senior thesis. Like Athens in the 400-300s B.C., Edinburgh became an unlikely center of culture and learning during the 18th century, hosting such great thinkers as David Hume and Adam Smith. Buchan writes:

The town, which had sat little changed on its rock until then, inconvenient, dirty, old-fashioned, alcoholic, quarrelsome and poor, began to alter, first slowly, then in a convulsion. Lochs were drained, ravines spanned by bridges, streets and squares thrown out into the stony fields. Ale gave way to tea and port and whisky. People dined at one o’clock, then two, then three, and then four.

Men discovered there were ways of charming women this side of abduction. They ceased to bring their pistols to table, or to share the same cup. They read newspapers, became Freemasons, danced, burst into tears. [. . .] A new theory of progress, based on good laws, international commerce and the companionship of men and women, displaced the antique world of valour, loyalty, religion, and the dagger. ‘Edinburgh, the Sink of Abomination’ became ‘Edinburgh, the Athens of Great Britain’. (1-2)

The narrative begins strongly but later gets bogged down in the details of old Scottish politics (this book was first released in Scotland). If I were more patient, I would do the page-flipping and wikipedia-searching necessary to untangle the web of ideologies and political alliances that the book describes. But, I was drawn to this book at the library out of all of the others because of the adventurous storytelling, and when that waned, the book was shelved (it was also overdue). To a more patient mind, it holds a lot of promise (even past page 98, where I stopped). At the very least, it’s worth coming back to.

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