I picked this up for cheap on Kindle some time ago, and meant to get to it a lot sooner than this. Especially as its part of an interesting period as our perception of how the world works.

Winchester is as some pains to show how much of a change in thought was going on. This informs the main subject, which is a biography of William Smith. Smith is quite definitely Winchester’s big hero, and the source of his interest in geology. I’ve seen some complaints that Smith’s role in a lot of this is overemphasized, but I’ll have to leave that to people with a lot more knowledge than I. No matter how true that may be, much of the central focus is the map Smith produced, which is certainly a tour-de-force of applied practical knowledge and theory.

The most annoying point for me is yet another in medias res start to a popular history book. In this case, it centers Smith’s incarceration in debtor’s prison, or actually, when he gets out, and leaves London, where he’s been trying to get contacts with the upper classes to spread knowledge of his ideas. Frankly, his life, as presented in order in the main book itself is interesting enough to not need this sort of thing, and the constant referrals back to this part that haunt the book are annoying.

There’s quite a lot of extended asides during the book, which range in interest and presentation, but almost all are about painting the world around the subject (one chapter instead goes into Winchester’s interest in geology, and serves as an intro to Smith’s study of rocks instead). This is very effective in generating much needed context, which it should be, as it does occupy a fair amount of page count. But this combined approach is what makes this a good book worth reading, there’s plenty in here that layers in more knowledge of the world.