Bookmarks Issue: 
Jane Brox

The Evolution of Artificial Light

A-BrilliantJane Brox has written three books on farming and rural life in New England, including Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History (1999), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Topic: Starting with the primitive lamps crafted during the Stone Age, Brox explores the profound effects of the quest for artificial light on human civilization. As she plots a chronological tour through the different substances used to extend precious daylight hours--animal fats such as whale oil and tallow, gas, kerosene, and, finally, electricity and light-emitting diodes (LEDs)--she describes the development and impact of each new invention. Although artificial light has substantially increased our productivity, efficiency, and leisure time, this marvel has come at a terrible price: ecological devastation, social injustice, and the deterioration of our own preprogrammed, internal rhythms, which has affected our health. It is time, Brox urges, for people to "think rationally about light and what it means to us."
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 368 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780547055275

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"In Jane Brox’s hands, a yawn-inducing subject has been fashioned into an addictively readable cultural history. In a word: dazzling." Tina Jordan

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Clearly written with an engaging cast of characters, Brilliant is a thought-provoking account of arguably one of the greatest technological changes in the history of the world. ... Artificial lighting has helped make the modern world we live in, and Brox has done a first-rate job in telling its story." David B. Williams

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"She’s as interested in the economics and politics of the subject as she is the technology. As a result her history is more than a bit contentious. ... Brox is a good explainer and here she’s at her best, unraveling the mysteries of the 300,000 miles of high-power transmission lines that we Americans have come to depend upon--and occasionally curse." Bill Marvel

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Brilliant is] concerned at least as much with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Northeast Blackout of 1965 as it is with what we might call the dialectic of artificial enlightenment. Yet like Edison’s incandescent bulb, which has become the cartoonist’s symbol of bright ideas, Brox’s history is warm and illuminating." Joshua Glenn

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"Brilliant has loads of exceptionally engaging information, including all the extracurricular stuff. But there may be too much here; the facts sometimes become jumbled and confusing, an amusement park with so many flashing lights it’s difficult to know where to go." Max Ross

Critical Summary

Brox’s intriguing blend of science, cultural analysis, and social history drew diverse reactions from critics. While the Boston Globe and the Washington Post would have preferred a tightened focus on technology, others applauded her ability to illuminate the relationships between and interdependence of culture, politics, economics, and science. Brox may not be an authority on such matters, but whatever she lacks in expertise, she makes up in enthusiasm and rigorous research. Her elegant writing, engaging characterizations, succinct technical explanations, and vivid evocations of a darkened nighttime world that no longer exists compensate for a meandering narrative and some debatable conclusions. Readers may never look at their bedside lamps in the same way again.