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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The 17th Century was a time of tremendous upheaval. The Church was under attack from Protestant rebels who challenged the authority of Rome and the very nature of God. The old world of scholasticism, in which the world of the Bible and the Ancient Philosophers was absolute was being challenged by the new science of observation. Natural philosophers and mathematicians were creating a new way of seeing the world. It was also a time of superstition, by today's standards, during which men and women were burned alive for the crimes of witchcraft and heresy. It was also a time, perhaps the last time in modern history, during which a single man might aspire to understand all of science, and to contribute to every branch. Scientists like Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Fermat, Hook, Boyle and Galileo were such men, and to their names we can add another, less well known, who nonetheless contributed significantly to the growing body of knowledge. His name was Athanasius Kircher,

Kircher was by all accounts, possessed of a singularly brilliant mind, as well as a fierce devotion to faith. He made significant contributions to a wide range of intellectual pursuits, perhaps rivaling da Vinci in that regard. Kircher was an early user of van Leeuwenhoek's microscope, and probably the first to propose that diseases like the Plague were carried by by microorganisms. He studied geology, including vulcanology, and theorized about the nature of fossils, contending, contrary to the accepted wisdom of the time, that they were simply the remains of organisms that had lived in earlier times. He taught mathematics, experimented with pyrotechnics, and is credited with the invention of several devices, including magnetic clock and, possibly, the megaphone. He was fascinated by ancient Egypt, and taught himself Coptic, and correctly connected it to modern Egyptian. He had similar fascination with the ancient history of China, and published a dissertation on Chinese history and culture, one of forty books he was known to have authored. He was also fascinated by the occult, and

Like many of his day, Kircher also believed in a number of theories, histories, and forces we no longer accept today, like spontaneous generation. Unlike many of his better known contemporaries, he was not adverse to creating theories out of very little, like his belief that there was a connection between ancient China and Egypt, and the existence of ancient Christian communities in China. Nonetheless, he was greatly respected for most of his life, and celebrated across Europe as a great scholar- something that helped save his life more than once. Towards the end of the 17thC his reputation began to fade, as other great minds contributed knowledge far beyond Kircher's understanding to mathematics and physics, and by the 20thC his name was mostly forgotten.

But then, late on the 20thC, Kircher was rediscovered by those who appreciated him not so much as a great scientist and scholar but as a fascinating historical character. The publication of Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge in 1979 introduced his name to many. There have been several books on Kircher since, including Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything and Godwin's 2009 Athanasius Kircher?s Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge, probably the best single reference on the life of the man.

The volume under review, John Glassie's "A Man of Misconceptions," aims at presenting a full picture of Kircher the man for the popular reader. There's a lot here on those with whom Kircher communicated with and who lived during his time,along with a fair bit of speculation as to his thoughts and those of his contemporaries. Glassie is aided greatly in his reconstructions by the autobiographical writing of Kircher himself, who was not shy about explaining his reasons for his actions, or blowing his own horn, for that matter. The result is a very entertaining read, as well as a fascinating glimpse into a time when the very nature of knowledge and belief was undergoing one of the greatest upheavals in modern history. Does it add anything of consequence to Godwin's book? Probably not, but if you haven't read any of the previous works on Kircher, this book is an excellent place to start.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 21, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Glassie's book is a marvelous melding of biography, historical and philosophical critique, and human insight. The dawn of the "Scientific Era", "Age of Enlightenment", or "Renaissance", depending on the terminology one chooses, is of course an unbelievably fertile field for each of these endeavors.

Anyone who has any interest in the way in which logical thought and scientific investigation finally began to break free of mythology and superstition will find this book both amusing and instructive. The subject, Jesuit priest and prolific author Athanasius Kircher, emerges as a person very much in the tradition typified by Leonardo Da Vinci: a man of extremely diverse and wide-ranging interests. Even the things Kircher "got wrong" often opened the way to subsequent developments and break-throughs.

For me, a significant point that was focused by this book is the way the intellectual discipline fostered by the Jesuit training Kircher received was pivotal in broadening and preparing his mind to empower his significant synthesis of spiritual and material reality. I have observed that apparently this sort of preparation has permitted later priest-scientists, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to bridge the gap between these two perspectives and has continued to encourage a less arrogant and doctrinaire investigation of reality.

I was especially delighted by comments made by the author in his fianl chapter, including his assertion that:

"There's something to be said for (Kircher's) effort to know everything and to share everything he knew, for asking a thousand questions about the world around him, and for getting so many others to ask questions about his answers; for stimulating, as well as confounding and inadvertently amusing, so many minds; for having been a source of so many ideas - right, wrong, half right, half-baked, ridiculous, beautiful and all-encompassing."

For me, the greatest joy does indeed result from the motion of a spirit of inquiry that is non-judgmental and not doctrinaire. Certainly Athanasius Kircher, as John Glassie depicts him, was susceptible to the common human failing of investing too much emotional currency in his own pet theories, but at the same time his extremely wide-ranging investigation and prolific writing obviously opened many doors that others could subsequently enter. This is in itself a significant contribution, as is John Glassie's delightful book.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2013
This is the best single book available on Athanasius Kircher, one of the most interesting figures in the history of science. Kircher has been the focus of many scholarly books and articles, but Glassie presents something new, a coherent portrait of Kircher as a scholar and thinker in the seventeenth-century world of the Counter Reformation that is intelligible to the lay reader but also does justice to his subject. His style is lively, and the book reads quite well. I would like to think that I know something about Kircher, but I learned much from this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The subject of this biography, 17th Century scientist and eccentric Athanasius Kircher, was a younger contemporary of Galileo's, and his later life overlapped Isaac Newton's. Kircher's life had many parallels to the two scientific greats, most aimed at the pursuit of knowledge, yet he never achieved nearly the levels of fame and glory of those men. Why? Because Kircher regularly embraced later-disproven (and often downright goofy by modern standards) explanations for a myriad of phenomena such as snake bites, music, hieroglyphics, magnetism, and celestial motion. In John Glassie's generally engrossing biography of Kircher, he partially redeems the reputation of a man who was both revered and ridiculed in own lifetime, but then somewhat lost to history as his theories mostly got debunked. It turns out that Kircher did break ground in a few areas he is not widely credited for, and he did have some degree of influence on those who came after him. As the story unfolds, Glassie deftly places Kircher's studies and experiments in the context of common beliefs at the time, while simultaneously revealing the quirky and egotistical personality of the man. Kircher lived an interesting life, and this biography kept my attention pretty well from beginning to end. Occasionally it started to feel a little too much like a history textbook, but fortunately those times were much less common than the fascinating and frequently funny "discoveries" and achievements of Athanasius Kircher.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
It's difficult being out of step with your time particularly if your accomplishments are swept aside by the Rationalists. 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kricher was a fascinating mix of brilliance and crackpot. Kricher was something of a polymath; like Da Vinci, he dabbled in all the different types of science writing a variety of books on a number of subjects from a review of Egyptian hieroglyphics to the cause of earthquakes. Kircher could be seen as the Carl Sagan of his time popularizing science if not for the fact that he was wrong so often. With the rise of Rationalism, Kircher's work was largely forgotten and Descartes described Kircher as ""more quacksalver than savant".

The strength of John Glassie's biography is the author's enthusiasm and his ability to capture details of 17th century life.

Glassie notes, for example, that Kircher was one of the earliest people to observe microorganisms and made a link between them and plague even going to far as to suggest a means to prevent the spread of plague including quarantine, the use of face masks and destroying the clothes of the deceased.

Kircher's translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics was completely wrong but he did correctly link hieroglyphics to the ancient Coptic languages. Kircher built a magnetic clock, an early megaphone and wrote extensively on early magic lanterns, music, geology and other completely unrelated disciplines. His most notable accomplishment was probably the fact that he could make a living from all the books he wrote.

Although largely forgotten, interest has grown in Kircher among scholars within the thirty years and Glassie's book provides a fascinating window to view Kircher, his accomplishments and the world of the 17th century.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2013
It was indeed an eccentric life lead by the subject of the work, Mr. Kircher. A productive, whirlwind, and bizarre time on this earth, in a time when many of his peers led similar lives but fell upon more respected and, quite frankly, truthful findings than Kircher. What becomes clear through the book is not just the work Kircher did, but also the passageways through the deceitful tactics of a very motivated at-all-costs figure to accomplish this work. This is why this book is so well done and thoroughly enjoyable. It is an intoxicating blend of the factual points of Kircher lifelong push for discovery with his peculiar psychosis of a strange and half addled yearning to be celebrated. It is not often that a historical book uses the writing voice of its author to help us understand the personality of the subject better, but in this case Mr. Glassie accomplishes exactly that. It is his direction through the twisting roads of Kircher's life and ambitious mind that throws the reader out on the other side with a comprehensive view of a man who wanted so much to be validated, and in the end failed, and mostly failed because of his own desperation. This is much work out there on Kircher, but not so much to try to understand why his output was so strange, and why he is considered such a "quack," that emanates from his very personality and struggles with his faith and persona. Mr. Glassie achieves the most difficult - to tell a mundane historical story that feels real with its time, that has crisp pacing, and paints a picture of a man who could have been a titan on par with his contemporaries, if only his flaws did not crumble his strengths - and whose flaws and strengths were the same. I expected a historical tome and instead felt a breath of life, and there is nothing more that can be asked of such a work.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
As the title to my review indicates Athanasius Kircher defies classification. Born into a German family notable for its lack of distinction, Kircher spent his early days and educaiton training to become a Jesuit. After admission into the Order, Kircher spent the rest of his life traveling from place to place in the Holy Roman Empire, Italy, and Malta in the service of the Pope and the Catholic Church. But Kircher had a restless, active mind and practically everything fascinated him. He wanted to know everything and tell the rest of the world everything he knew, and as a result he became a legendary writer, collector, theorist, and (there's no other word that better describes him) eccentric.

Kircher lived during the 17th century, a time of dramatic change and turmoil in Europe. His German homeland and adopted Italian homes were devastated by unceasing conflict. Even more importantly, settled attitudes and beliefs were being challenged by the Scientific Revolution, an outgrowth of the Renaissance. Kircher was a good fit for all the chaos. Everything fascinated him: magnetism, hieroglyphics, alchemy, the Kaballa, etc, etc. He wrote constantly and verbosely, producing incredibly long and complex volumes that were widely read. He communicated with scientists and philosophers all across Europe, including luminaries like Descartes.

Unfortunately, most of the time Kircher was wrong headed, sometimes by circumstance and sometimes by choice. His standing as a Church official meant he had to defend the geocentric theory in the face of Copernican and Galilean criticism. His belief in spontaneous generation was maintained even after compelling evidence to the contrary was published by some of his doubters. Through it all he seems to have maintained a friendly, optimistic personality and a boundless enthusiasm that made people like him even when they considered him completely wrongheaded. Even before Kircher's death he was beginning to be dismissed and forgotten, and his name survived over the next centuries chiefly as an example of how not to be a scientist.

Nevertheless Kircher had positive influence on great minds of his own time, such as Newton and Leibniz. Later on other thinkers like Mesmer were inspired by some of his theories, as were some more doubtful types like Madame Blavatsky. John Glassie's biography of Kircher gives a good picture of the man and his times. You'll enjoy reading about Kircher's wild and crazy theories, even if sometimes you'll just shake your head and laugh. You'll also find yourself shaking your head with amazement at some of Kircher's stunts, like climbing into Mount Vesuvius's crater, and wondering how he managed to survive it all.

Kircher's accomplishments were on the modest side, but his enthusiasm and boundless curiosity inspired many others, including some who accomplished much more than he did, and for that he dserves to be remembered.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2012
John Glassie's biography of seventeenth-century thinker Athanasius Kircher takes us to a time when knowledge, religion, and the occult were closely entwined. It's hard to imagine the breadth of Kircher's investigations. He translated Egyptian hieroglyphics, viewed blood cells through an early microscope, theorized that medicines worked through magnetic action, established a famous museum, demonstrated that a sunflower seed could act like a clock...and much, more more.
Well, some of this was so. Glassie illuminates the truly erudite Kircher and the man who freely plagiarized the works of others, faked experiments, and colored observations with mysticism. Still, Kircher was enormously influential and popular in his time. Various of his works - on music, light, China, and even an underground world - were translated and sold throughout Europe . While eventually the new scientists discredited Kircher's writings, Glassie shows that even his erroneous ideas could contain a grain of truth or stimulate further thinking. With my limited background in the history of science. I found some of these details hard to follow. But I enjoyed watching the way early researchers groped their way towards scientific methods, such as replicating experiments or using controls.
What would we make of Kircher if he lived in America today? Perhaps he would have been a success, if controversial, attracting both followers and investigative reporters. He was indeed smart, prolific, and curious. He was also adventurous, calculating, ambitious, self-promoting, and skilled at using powerful connections. This is a readable portrait of a supersized character. The author lets us smile at some of Kircher's most outrageous claims and enlivens history of science with anecdote, reminding us that knowledge moves in mysterious ways.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 20, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
John Glassie writes an interesting book of a not so familiar figure within the history of science. But after reading A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of An Eccentric in an Age of Change, readers will become familiarize with Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher. Upon reading each of the chapters of the book, great figures of the world in terms of the fathers of invention, Leonardo Da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, and John Locke may come to mind. Indeed, they were Renaissance men of their times but not necessarily during the same age and time, but during their respective lifetimes. And within that circle one may also place Kircher.

There is no doubt that Athanasius Kircher was at the right place at the right time by coincidence and happened to experience the most innovative events in the history of discovery. And one of the advantageous of his life was his impatience and the life of a Jesuit priest, which allowed time spent in solitude and self-discipline to keep an open mind within an environment that appeared to be closed off from the rest of society. However, that was not the case in Kircher's life because there was no escaping the changes that occurred around him before and during his life of the most historic events to have occurred within his circles of the Jesuit religious order, the split in the Christian church and revolutionary figures such as Martin Luther and Ignatius Loyola that became influential. But beyond the disciplined life of religious devotion that Kircher had in common with Luther and Loyola, his eccentricity of the desire to gain knowledge also became a form of devotion much like his spiritual devotion to the Catholic Church; his intellectual devotion spurred a hunger to learn more than he could ever imagine. Having been born in Gaisa, Germany, who would have thought that Kircher would find his way to Sicily and write within a similar vein as the greats of classic literature of his account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1631? Indeed, Kircher and a fellow companion skilled in hiking the summit found their way to the top of the crater. The experience was written and described as an abyss within devilish proportions.

A Man of Misconceptions is an insightful book of the life of Athanasius Kircher and the many adventures and discoveries that may not be within the pages of history books. After reading Glassie's narrative, one may place Kircher within the ranks of the most influential figures in history because of his contributions and his scientific writings that have been overlooked. But most of all, his contributions invoke the power of invention.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Apparently, the past dozen years have seen a handful of books about Athanasius Kircher ( such as Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything or Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge or Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge) and I have not ready any of them and so have no real idea how they compare and contrast with this volume. I can say that Glassie lists them all (among many not so recent titles) in his sources. I cannot tell you much about Kircher, who I was only very faintly aware of before reading this. What I can tell you is that this is a delightful little book that serves as wonderful introduction to a fascinating life.

I havae an old friend who used to approach novels with his "first line" test: If the first line of a book does not make you want to read on, or conversely, puts you off for any reason, then it is almost certainly not worth bothering with. Let me expand his test a bit and share with you the first paragraph here:

"According to the memoir of Athanasius Kircher, even the circumstances of his birth were auspicious. And in a sense they were, if you choose, as he did, to leave out the witch hunt."

I was sold at that point. This is a very entertaining book, lighthearted, though not light-weight. Kircher is presented fondly, like an eccentric but lovable uncle and his writings and their reception, the meat of the book, are treated seriously, as such. That he was fascinated and expounded on virtually EVERYTHING engenders a great admiration. That he was so often, um, mistaken, makes for an interesting read. Kircher, you see, wanted to know about everything and, moreover, wanted to show the world that he knew about everything. If he was wrong, a lot, then so be it. There was always more to come.

If I have any reservation about A Man of Misconceptions, it is that while the misconceptions are treated at length, the man himself really doesn't ever clearly emerge. We get chronology, we get travelogue, but we never really get the man involved in them. In a sense, I suppose, the man WAS his ideas and ambitions, but Kircher never quite breathes here.

Despite that, I still found this a fascinating, entertaining read and enjoyed the time I spent with this odd, pompous, blithely pedantic man.
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