Thursday, January 07, 2010
Just ask -- Madison Public Library as Santa Claus
"Ask here," the sign states (at the Sequoya Branch), and I did, although I asked online instead of at the reference desk. This was the deal: I was putting together my Christmas wish list for Santa's helpers on Amazon and soon found I had far more books on the list than Santa had helpers. So I weeded out my list by reserving the ones that didn't have hopeless waiting lists at the library. Like clockwork, I've been getting e-mails saying another book is ready for pickup. Sometimes even relatively recent books show up in just no time. (Occasionally I've read a book review in the Times, reserved the book, and picked it up a few days later. So cool.)
One of my favorites showed up even before Christmas, and was a great holiday read: The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. It's about Joseph Priestley, subtitled "A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America," and it's just that. Priestley was an English Unitarian minister when that was a radical act. He was a pioneering experimental chemist, the co-discoverer of oxygen whose achievement was tarnished by the fact that he continued to cling to the outmoded phlogiston theory his entire life. He was also friend and confidant of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson -- and that's where the story really gets interesting. A fascinating read about a time when generalists still walked the earth and cutting-edge science, religion and politics were intertwined in ways that would be unthinkable today.