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Powell's Q&A

Steven Johnson

Describe your latest project.
The Invention of Air is — like my last book, The Ghost Map — essentially an idea book wrapped around a historical narrative. It's centered on the life of Joseph Priestley, the 18th-century British polymath who most people know as the discoverer of oxygen, though the story of that "discovery" is a very complicated one. What drew me to Priestley originally is another, less contested (and much less recognized) discovery: he was the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen, in 1771. So in a way Priestley lies at the very beginning of the ecosystems view of the world: the air we breathe is not some inevitable fact of life on earth, but something manufactured as part of a wider system by other organisms on the planet. But Priestley turns out to be bound up with the American Founding Fathers in all sorts of fascinating ways: he was best friends with Franklin for the last 10 years or so that Franklin lived in London, and his writings on religion — Priestley also helped establish the first Unitarian Church in England — had the single most dramatic impact on Thomas Jefferson's eclectic Christianity. Priestley's radicalism ends up provoking the Birmingham Riots of 1791, which ultimately drive him to emigrate to America, where he becomes a central figure in the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the falling out — and ultimate reconciliation — between John Adams and Jefferson.

In a real sense, Priestley was a kind of lost Founding Father: a hugely important figure to Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson who is barely mentioned today in most accounts of the revolutionary generation. To give you some sense of his role: in the final correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, starting in 1812, Priestley is mentioned 52 times, while Franklin is mentioned five times, and Washington only three. And when you see the Founders through the lens of Priestley's life, it changes the way we think about the values of the revolutionary generation. (For one, it makes it clear how thoroughly integrated science was with their political worldviews.) So this is, in a sense, my version of the Founding Fathers genre: a long-zoom history of that period, with chemistry, thermodynamics, information theory, neuroscience, and cultural history onstage along with the usual Great Men.

  1. The Invention of Air: A Study of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America
    $6.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "As a reminder of the underlying sanity and common sense of this country...The Invention of Air succeeds like a shot of the purest oxygen." Publishers Weekly

    "[Johnson] tells the story in a reader-friendly manner that also encourages readers to think about how these themes apply in today's world." Library Journal

  2. The Ghost Map: The Story of London
    $9.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "By turns a medical thriller, detective story and paean to city life, Johnson's account of the outbreak and its modern implications is a true page-turner." The Washington Post

    "The Ghost Map charts the London cholera epidemic of 1854, from which Johnson extracts a saga of human ingenuity and true communal effort." Los Angeles Times

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Manuel De Landa probably has the highest ratio of influence on my work to total books sold of any author I've read. A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History is a real masterpiece, I think. He has a following among academics and artists, but not as large as he deserves. There's a key theme in Invention of Air that revolves around the impact of energy flows on human culture that I started thinking about years ago when I first read De Landa's book.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
True. Or am I lying? (Has anyone not answered this question that way?)

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I love this sentence that Thomas Jefferson wrote (about a patent dispute in 1813) so much that I put it at the front of Invention:

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

How do you relax?
Lots of ways. I think I am one of the least stressed writers on the planet. I listen to music, and play a little of it as well. I head out to Prospect Park with my kids and play baseball. I drink red wine. I go out to dinner with my wife. But just writing is itself strangely relaxing for me — not when I'm doing it, but once I've made a little progress. If I can write 500 to 1,000 words in a morning, I'm in a great mood for the rest of the day.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I've just finished Oliver Morton's superb Eating the Sun, which I think may be the best attempt to explain fully the magic of photosynthesis — and its implications for the future of the planet — ever put to paper. Anyone interested in energy issues or global warming will just devour the book. I got to it through a shockingly direct channel: Oliver sent me an email about it.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Yes, many times, but most recently to Bowood, the estate in England where Priestley wrote many of his key works, and where he isolated oxygen for the first time. It's an absolutely spectacular landscape, and standing in the room where Priestley had worked more than two centuries before literally sent shivers down my spine.

Name the best television series of all time.
Definitely The Wire. I think in the end it was actually better than Dickens (which is what it was often compared to) because it had all the social complexity and connectedness, but it had more realism (and less satire) than a book like Bleak House or Little Dorrit.

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
I would say authors who play Rock Band on the Wii.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
These are the five books that most inspired me while writing The Invention of Air (and that would be of interest to anyone curious about the general topic of the book):

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow

A World on Fire by Joe Jackson

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis

Leviathan and the Air-Pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer

The Emerald Planet by David Beerling

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Steven Johnson is the author of the national bestsellers The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good for You, and Mind Wide Open, as well as Emergence and Interface Culture. He was the cofounder of the online magazine FEED and is a contributing editor to Wired.


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