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Interviews | January 6, 2014 2 comments
If everyone got to talk to Richard Powers for 45 minutes, humanity might go ahead and evolve to its next level. Unfailingly kind and generous,... Continue »
Steven JohnsonDescribe 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.
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?
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
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?
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Name the best television series of all time.
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
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.