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Joseph Priestley And 'The Invention Of Air'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Author Steven Johnson's new book, The Invention of Air, is, on the one hand, a supple examination of the man largely credited with the discovery of oxygen. On the other, it's a subtle reminder of the intellectual glories of bygone days when great thinkers mastered numerous fields, not merely one.

Joseph Priestley was never formally trained, but the 18th century scientist and philosopher is sometimes described as the father of modern chemistry. He was also a formative figure in the Unitarian movement. Priestley's ideas were considered so radical that a religious mob torched his laboratory in England.

Friendly with Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Priestly also profoundly influenced their thoughts about scientific inquiry — and by extension, the intensely humanist impulses that helped shape this country.

Writing in Salon, reviewer Andrew O'Hehir described the book as "easy and indeed delightful to read. But it aims high. ... Johnson is a wide-ranging enthusiast with a catholic appetite for intriguing facts and a Marxian appetite for searching for structures that underlie social phenomena." Publisher's Weekly praised the book as "a brave and generally successful attempt to summarize and parse the degree to which [Priestley's] influence infected the founding principles of the American nation."

Author Steven Johnson is a Web entrepreneur who founded the popular Web sites FEED and Plastic. His earlier books include best-sellers that explain the benefits, respectively, of pop culture and bottom-up intelligence, as illustrated by ants, cities and software.

This reading of The Invention of Air took place in January 2009 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.