this is an exceptionally well written and entertaining survey of the major personalities of the 18th century english enlightenment and early 19th century romantics, and their individual places in the complex cultural tensions during that period -- between religious and secular, public and personal, classical and romantic, superstitious and scientific. All the big names are here (addison, boyle, byron, erasmus darwin, gibbon, johnson, locke, priestley, sterne, swift) as well as many lesser lights (godwin, hartley, mandeville, shaftesbury, willis), and their lives, opinions and writings are woven into an extended examination of mind and body, materialism and spirituality, individualism and identity, and the shifting definitions of man, humanity and gender politics. however the material is made accessible as relatively short, self contained or stand alone chapters that focus on a particular person or topic. the relatively large size and generous spacing of the typeface makes the book a brisk read, despite its bulk and length (573 pages).
this edition includes an extensive (80 pages, two columns) bibliography and a detailed index, but -- regrettably -- there are no endnotes or footnotes, so that all the facts, anecdotes, quotations and excerpts are completely unreferenced. the preface claims that this omission was necessary because porter died before the notes were compiled, and they could not be reconstructed because he used different editions of a single document (locke's treatises, boswell's "life of johnson", the various editions of the "spectator", etc.). given the availability of electronic (keyword searchable) editions of most of these classics, this seems to me a feeble excuse for editorial economy, but it does encourage a running rather than plodding engagement with the narrative.
i especially recommend this book as preliminary to a visit to the national portrait gallery (london), where portraits of most of the men described here are on display.