Humboldt and the Cosmos

by Douglas Botting

Rating: ★★★

I was looking for a copy of Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature, a bookclub choice, when I came across this book. Recognising that I'd probably not get my hands on the targeted book before I left the country, I decided to get Humboldt and the Cosmos as an alternative so I could at least contribute to the bookclub discussion. As it turned out, Amazon are more efficient than would be planned, and I did get The Invention of Nature before my trip. Given that I don't have any particular interest in Humboldt, I thought it'd be best to read this relatively soon after the first biography.

Botting writes a much better book than Wulf. Perhaps it is because he was an explorer himself, or maybe just because he is a more experienced biographer, but he did what Wulf failed to do for me, and presented South America through Humboldt and Bonpland's eyes, capturing the mosquito-plagued nature of that journey while revealing something about their natures. Botting's narrative is very similarly constructed to Wulf's, leading me to wonder how much of this is due to the source material and how much might be due to Wulf reading Botting. Some interesting divergences do appear, though. Botting writes far more clearly about Humboldt's concrete accomplishments, such as his early work with miners in Europe, and spends far less time trying to magnify the importance of Humboldt or his ecological thought. As a result, I feel far less cheated -- Botting is just writing a book about a great scientist and explorer, and he shows me why.

This is a richly illustrated biography, including several of the plates included in Humboldt's own works -- which Botting thankfully warns me off reading by including some discussion of Humboldt's poor writing -- as well as paintings of Humboldt and his adventures by contemporary artists. These do add something to the book, particularly the maps which outline his routes in South America and in Russia. Suitable in tone for a variety of interested readers, being both informative and adventurous, this is the sort of book Wulf should have written.