A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change

A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change

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by John Glassie
     
 

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This is the vivid, unconventional story of Athanasius Kircher, the legendary seventeenth-century priest-scientist who was either a great genius or a colossal crackpot . . . or a bit of both.

Kircher’s interests knew no bounds. From optics to music to magnetism to medicine, he offered up inventions and theories for everything, and they made

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Overview

This is the vivid, unconventional story of Athanasius Kircher, the legendary seventeenth-century priest-scientist who was either a great genius or a colossal crackpot . . . or a bit of both.

Kircher’s interests knew no bounds. From optics to music to magnetism to medicine, he offered up inventions and theories for everything, and they made him famous across Europe. His celebrated museum in Rome featured magic lanterns, speaking statues, the tail of a mermaid, and a brick from the Tower of Babel. Holy Roman Emperors were his patrons, popes were his friends, and in his spare time he collaborated with the Baroque master Bernini.

But Kircher lived during an era of radical transformation, in which the old approach to knowledge—what he called the “art of knowing”—was giving way to the scientific method and modern thought. A Man of Misconceptions traces the rise, success, and eventual fall of this fascinating character as he attempted to come to terms with a changing world.

With humor and insight, John Glassie returns Kircher to his rightful place as one of history’s most unforgettable figures.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
In 2002 the New York Institute for the Humanities organized a symposium under the title "Was Athanasius Kircher the Coolest Guy Ever, or What?" The highlights of this 17th-century German Jesuit polymath's sprawling résumé, summed up in John Glassie's brisk new biography, suggest the question wasn't completely absurd…Mr. Glassie draws on three decades of renewed scholarly interest in his work to deliver a stirring if sometimes backhanded defense…And Mr. Glassie says it, with impressive verve and un-Kircherian concision, though the sheer sprawl of the man's mostly untranslated output…thwarts any hope of a clean narrative arc.
—Jennifer Schuessler
Library Journal
A former contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, Glassie tells the story of Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century scientist much admired in his day for discoveries that have since proven to be, politely put, half-cocked. Magnetism is not the force driving the universe, his translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics were all wrong, and what's this about his proudly displaying a mermaid's tailbone? An entertaining reminder that skepticism can be good.
Kirkus Reviews
Biography of 17th-century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. In his introduction, former New York Times Magazine contributing editor Glassie (Bicycles Locked to Poles, 2005) begins by describing the now-forgotten polymath as nothing less than "a champion of wonder, a man of awe-inspiring erudition and inventiveness, who...helped advance the cause of humankind." Born in what is now central Germany in 1602, Kircher entered the Jesuit order as a seminarian, teaching mathematics, philosophy and other subjects, before eventually becoming ordained as a priest. He wrote more than 30 books on Egyptian hieroglyphics, volcanoes, optics, Chinese history and more. However, even by the standards of his time, Kircher was often completely wrong, and his scientific books were sometimes "valued more for the entertainment than the information it provided." This did not stop his books from being "read, if not always respected, by the smartest minds of the time." Kircher and his work enjoyed a modicum of fame during his lifetime, but even before his death, his reputation was already in decline. Glassie does his best to place his subject in the larger context of the age, but as the book soldiers on, it becomes increasingly difficult to see why Kircher warrants a full biography. Links to his contemporaries often feel tacked-on, such as the description of Kircher's relationship with Queen Christina of Sweden. In the case of Sir Isaac Newton, these links are stretched extremely thin, as Glassie claims that "[t]here is no way to know if Newton read Kircher, but it's very likely that he did." A competently written but nonessential biography.
From the Publisher
“Like his subject, Athanasius Kircher, writer John Glassie has the rare gift of authentic quirkiness. A Man of Misconceptions leaves you contemplating the big questions, delightedly scratching your head, and laughing—all at the same time.”
—Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod and Salt

“I’ve been waiting my entire adult life for someone to write a popular biography of the loopy, ingenious scholar-priest Athanasius Kircher, and John Glassie has delivered marvelously. A man of insatiable curiosity and staggeringly diverse intellectual passions, Kircher may have been the greatest polymath of all time—or at least the most eccentric.”
—Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein

“Glassie brings the ultimate mad professor Athanasius Kircher vividly to life, revealing him to be a kind of cross between Leonardo da Vinci and Mr. Bean. A most entertaining foray into the history of science.”
—Ross King, author of Brunelleschi’s Dome

“A marvelous insight into the mind of one of the world’s most eccentric thinkers. Glassie brings Kircher to life—and what a life it is!”
—Adrian Tinniswood, author of The Verneys and Pirates of Barbary

“What a brilliant and revealing book about a fascinating character, one I had no previous knowledge about. Glassie’s genius is to make Kircher and his era come alive for us centuries later in such a way that I can hear and touch him.”

— Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

"This fascinating biography of the Renaissance polymath Athanasius Kircher explores the birth of modern science through the life of one of the last pre-modern geniuses."
The New Yorker

“[A] brisk new biography...stirring…with impressive verve and un-Kircherian concision.”
The New York Times

“In his quirky biography of Athanasius Kircher … Mr. Glassie uses Kircher as something of a comic foil to show how erroneous ideas about investigating nature helped lead to modern science... [A] spirited telling."
The Wall Street Journal

“You will come away from Glassie's book ... feeling inspired by the incredible inventive spirit of the man behind such creations as the ‘cat piano’ and ‘the speaking trumpet’ — and at the same time a bit sad that such characters as Kircher have been left mostly forgotten in the winds of time. You'll feel more knowledgeable about everything because of this book.”
The Atlantic Wire

“Hooh boy! ... Why do I love Kircher so much? Chalk it up to the man’s passion for scientific inquiry, and his boundless curiosity about how the world works.”
Scientific American

“Glassie’s biography ... brings into stark relief the pressures of the intellectual climate he lived in ... a time when witch trials flourished, prevailing logic said bees spontaneously generated from dung, and when it was widely believed that something called the vegetable lamb plant of Tartary produced actual sheep as its fruit.”
The Daily Beast

"In the course of his life, Kircher opined, almost invariably incorrectly, about the nature of light, magnetism, and the geography of the earth…Glassie has a genuine affection for Kircher despite the latter's laughably bizarre theories and self-aggrandizing egotism. In fact, the author's affection humanizes Kircher, making him oddly credible."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“An entertaining reminder that skepticism can be good.”
Library Journal

“excellent…An entertaining and enlightening biography of a man who has been, probably unfairly, almost entirely left out of the history of science.”
Booklist   

"His sharp eye for the absurd helps Glassie make Kircher's story interesting and superbly human.... Glassie tells Kircher's complex story with humor and genuine passion, using fascinating details to bring us into Kircher's world. "
— Bookslut

"What makes A Man of Misconceptions fascinating is how it sets the intellectual scene of the 17th century ... and it's that clarity of scene that helps make sense of a contradictory character."
Mental Floss Magazine

"Fun and magisterial ... A simply fascinating book about a fascinating figure."
Baltimore City Paper

"Very entertaining."
— NPR's "Science Friday"
 

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594488719
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/08/2012
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
5.92(w) x 8.32(h) x 1.12(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“Like his subject, Athanasius Kircher, writer John Glassie has the rare gift of authentic quirkiness. A Man of Misconceptions leaves you contemplating the big questions, delightedly scratching your head, and laughing—all at the same time.”
—Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod and Salt

“I’ve been waiting my entire adult life for someone to write a popular biography of the loopy, ingenious scholar-priest Athanasius Kircher, and John Glassie has delivered marvelously. A man of insatiable curiosity and staggeringly diverse intellectual passions, Kircher may have been the greatest polymath of all time—or at least the most eccentric.”
—Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein

“Glassie brings the ultimate mad professor Athanasius Kircher vividly to life, revealing him to be a kind of cross between Leonardo da Vinci and Mr. Bean. A most entertaining foray into the history of science.”
—Ross King, author of Brunelleschi’s Dome

“A marvelous insight into the mind of one of the world’s most eccentric thinkers. Glassie brings Kircher to life—and what a life it is!”
—Adrian Tinniswood, author of The Verneys and Pirates of Barbary

“What a brilliant and revealing book about a fascinating character, one I had no previous knowledge about. Glassie’s genius is to make Kircher and his era come alive for us centuries later in such a way that I can hear and touch him.”
— Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

"This fascinating biography of the Renaissance polymath Athanasius Kircher explores the birth of modern science through the life of one of the last pre-modern geniuses."
The New Yorker

“[A] brisk new biography...stirring…with impressive verve and un-Kircherian concision.”
The New York Times

“In his quirky biography of Athanasius Kircher … Mr. Glassie uses Kircher as something of a comic foil to show how erroneous ideas about investigating nature helped lead to modern science... [A] spirited telling."
The Wall Street Journal

“You will come away from Glassie's book ... feeling inspired by the incredible inventive spirit of the man behind such creations as the ‘cat piano’ and ‘the speaking trumpet’ — and at the same time a bit sad that such characters as Kircher have been left mostly forgotten in the winds of time. You'll feel more knowledgeable about everything because of this book.”
The Atlantic Wire

“Hooh boy! ... Why do I love Kircher so much? Chalk it up to the man’s passion for scientific inquiry, and his boundless curiosity about how the world works.”
Scientific American

“Glassie’s biography ... brings into stark relief the pressures of the intellectual climate he lived in ... a time when witch trials flourished, prevailing logic said bees spontaneously generated from dung, and when it was widely believed that something called the vegetable lamb plant of Tartary produced actual sheep as its fruit.”
The Daily Beast

"In the course of his life, Kircher opined, almost invariably incorrectly, about the nature of light, magnetism, and the geography of the earth…Glassie has a genuine affection for Kircher despite the latter's laughably bizarre theories and self-aggrandizing egotism. In fact, the author's affection humanizes Kircher, making him oddly credible."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“An entertaining reminder that skepticism can be good.”
Library Journal

“excellent…An entertaining and enlightening biography of a man who has been, probably unfairly, almost entirely left out of the history of science.”
Booklist   

"His sharp eye for the absurd helps Glassie make Kircher's story interesting and superbly human.... Glassie tells Kircher's complex story with humor and genuine passion, using fascinating details to bring us into Kircher's world. "
— Bookslut

"What makes A Man of Misconceptions fascinating is how it sets the intellectual scene of the 17th century ... and it's that clarity of scene that helps make sense of a contradictory character."
Mental Floss Magazine

"Fun and magisterial ... A simply fascinating book about a fascinating figure."
Baltimore City Paper

"Very entertaining."
— NPR's "Science Friday"
 

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Meet the Author

John Glassie, a former contributing editor to The New York Times Magazine, has written for The Believer, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, Salon, Wired, and other publications. He is the author of the photo book Bicycles Locked to Poles and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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