Jon Day in The Guardian:
‘The fate of our times,” wrote the sociologist Max Weber in 1917, “is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” Though its urgency was new, Weber’s anxiety – that the rise of monotheism, followed by the gradual secularisation of culture and the march of science, were robbing the world of wonder – was an old one. In “Lamia”, published in 1820, John Keats expressed a fear that Newtonian optics would “unweave” the rainbow. In 1949, the critic Lionel Trilling warned of the “reductive spectre” of psychoanalysis which, he thought, “haunts our culture”. Nowadays, Trilling’s spectre has been replaced by what the writer and retired medical physician Raymond Tallis has identified as contemporary culture’s propensity toward “neuromania”: the belief that neuroscientific explanations for consciousness can fully account for all human experience and endeavour.
The writer Caspar Henderson wants to re-enchant the world, but not at the expense of scientific explanations of it. His lucid, elegant and wide-ranging book A New Map of Wonders does a good job of showing how misplaced our fear of scientific reductionism is. He wants, he says in his introduction, “to inspire and share curiosity and wonder” and to use “philosophy, history, art, religion, science and technology in search of a better appreciation of both the things we wonder at and the nature of wonder itself”. In doing so he’s produced a wunderkammer of breathtaking facts, images and ideas, expressed in prose that is always fluent and often witty. Like his previous Book of Barely Imagined Beings – a speculative atlas of 27 of the strangest creatures on earth – A New Map of Wonders is Borgesian in scope and intent, composed of a series of interlinked essays that read like entries in a gonzo encyclopedia. It is, he says, not really a map at all, but more of a “thaumatologue” – a catalogue of marvels. His models are medieval texts such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, in which the limits of the known world were charted and described, or the Islamic scholar Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri’s The Ultimate Ambition in The Arts of Erudition, published in 1314, which contains “vital insights such as that if a man urinates on a rhinoceros’s ear the animal will run away”.