In the early eighteenth century, Edinburghwas a filthy backwater synonymous with poverty and disease, and recently famous for religious persecution. When this small walled-off city surrendered to a handful of Highlanders in 1745, things had never looked bleaker. Yet by century's end, the ancient Scottish capital had become the marvel of modern Europe, thanks to a group of friends whose trailblazing ingenuity and passion for ideas changed the way all of us look at the world.
It was in Edinburgh that a unique gathering of the finest minds of the day came together and made breathtaking innovations in architecture, politics, science, the arts and economics, all of which continue to echo loudly today. This was a time of radical upheaval and advancement, and a place of such cerebral stature as to rival the Athens of Socrates. Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations. James Boswell produced The Life of Samuel Johnson. Alongside them, pioneers -- such as the philosophers David Hume and Adam Ferguson, the poet Robert Burns, the chemist James Black, the geologist James Hutton, and the novelist Sir Walter Scott -- transformed the way we understand our perceptions and feelings, sickness and health, relations between the sexes, the natural world, and the purpose of existence.
In Crowded with Genius, James Buchan, himself a Scot with a strong attachment to this history, beautifully reconstructs the intimate geographic scale and boundless intellectual milieu of Enlightenment Edinburgh. With the scholarship of a historian and the elegance of a novelist, he tells the story of the triumph of this unlikely town and the men whose vision brought it into being. Buchan has written an extraordinary account of the movement that turned Edinburgh from a city under siege into a hotbed of brilliant achievements that changed the course of history and gave birth to the modern mind.
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James Buchan is a novelist and critic. He is the author of The Persian Bride, a New York Times Notable Book, as well as Frozen Desire, an examination of money that received the Duff Cooper Prize. He has also won the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. Buchan is a contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the New York Observer, and a former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times. He lives in Norfolk, England.From Publishers Weekly:
In a span of 50 years in the late 18th century, Edinburgh, a city of merely 40,000 inhabitants, contained some of the Enlightenment's most important thinkers, such as philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, biographer James Boswell and scientist James Hutton. Buchan, a Whitbread-winning novelist and critic, brings this remarkable era to life, opening with a brief history of the failed rebellion of 1745 and the romanticism that lingered in the Scottish psyche. He also stresses the importance of the Presbyterian Church, but emphasizes that it lost much of its power over Scottish intellectuals. One such intellectual was the influential philosopher David Hume, who was attacked as a heretic but being, in his own words, "naturally of cheerful and sanguine temper," he "soon recovered the blow." A similarly sharp portrait is painted of the life and work of Adam Smith, whose work expressed the rise of the power of commercialism. Buchan also devotes some of his narrative to science, examining Edinburgh as a global center of medical education, and to literature, in which Scotsmen such as novelist Henry Mackenzie and poet Robert Burns would blaze the way for the Age of Romanticism. Throughout, Buchan writes well and does a fine job arguing the case for Edinburgh's disproportionately large impact on 18th-century intellectual history. Yet much of this material has been covered before, most recently in Arthur Herman's enjoyable How the Scots Invented the Modern World, which many readers might find more accessible on complex matters like Hume's philosophy. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
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