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Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World Hardcover – 21 Aug 2003
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James Buchan has written a hugely readable and comprehensive review of this volatile period in the city's life. Fascinating anecdotes and arguments sparkle across its pages, and...CAPITAL OF THE MIND is an absolute joy to read. (Irvine Welsh, Guardian)
James Buchan tells the extraordinary story with a novelist's narrative zip and brilliant flashes of detail ... as Buchan says in this marvellous book, "there is no city like Edinburgh in all the world." (Sunday Times)
Vigorous and entertaining (Sunday Telegraph)
A work of prodigious research and clarity of thought (Irish Examiner)
Thought-provoking examination of the role played by Edinburgh in the creation of the Enlightenment (Scottish Sunday Herald)
With a novelist's flair for pace and a prodigious eye for detail ... Capital of the Mind brings 18th-century Edinburgh vividly to life. The narrative ... is fascinating (The Field)
A brilliant piece of work, by far the best biography of my hometown (Irvine Welsh, Guardian)
There have been many books about "The Athens of the North", but none as authoritative as this (The Times)
Edinburgh ... laid the mental foundations for the modern world (Sunday Telegraph)
Buchan vigorously advances the argument announced in his title, and he writes intellectual history like the novelist he is (Independent)
Buchan does a scholarly job of describing this transformation (Halifax Daily News)
He brings us the look and smell and feel of Scotland ... The book is a triumph of fact-based, imaginatively-expressed writing (Magnus Magnusson, New Statesman)
For such a learned history, Mr Buchan has a clear writing style, a light touch and a irreverent sense of humour. In the more gently paced chapters on such intellectuals as David Hume and Adam Smith, he combines deft broad strokes with intricate details, shading in apparently dry subjects with innumerable and delightful anecdotes that bring the old city to life. (Economist)
An entertaining intellectual history ... Pungently evoking the Old Town and the planning of the new, masterfully condensing the lives and works of such titans as David Hume and Adam Smith, coolly anatomising the bogus Gaelic epics of Ossian and the newfangled cult of sentiment, and watching half-amused, half-outraged, as Boswell and Johnson career through his pages, Buchan brilliantly tells a complex story (Guardian)
In this wonderful account we experience the look, feel and smell of 18th century Edinburgh, and experience too the birth of the modern world.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
Analysing the Scottish Enlightenment is a monumental task. Controversies and inconsistencies abound. This Calvinist society rose to support a Roman Catholic pretender to the British throne. While condemning the Papacy as intruding on the lives of the faithful, the Scottish Kirk was thoroughly integrated into the education, politics and legal system of Edinburgh. Buchan neatly ties all these conflicting forces into a readable, highly detailed package. He is able to expose all these facets with minimal confusion as he introduces us to the major figures that would make the city a northern Athens. His focus is on personalities, with leading figures ambling, cavorting or dashing across the pages according to their style.
His first noteworthy figure is, of course, David Hume. Perhaps no individual set the tone for the Scottish Enlightenment as did Hume. Controversial and inconsistent in his own way, he struggled to shed the impediments of traditional dogmas while avoiding accusations of rebellion or heresy. He set the tone Edinburgh lights would follow - travelling the Continent, examining the human condition, and writing in "Southern English", as Buchan calls it. The language of London was a key element in what was to follow. English, instead of "Scottish English" would be the export licence conveying ideas up and down the British island, thence abroad.
Hume is followed by such notables as Adam Smith, John Home, the strange saga of James MacPherson's attempt to resurrect Scots' traditions by fabricating them, and the founder of geology, James Hutton. Other, lesser known lights, but surely contributors to this Northern Renaissance are dramatist Alexander Wedderburn, publisher Robert Chambers and the more practical contributions of George Drummond. There is more to Edinburgh's rise to prominence than the expressions of thoughtful men. In this period, the city descended from an enclave surrounding its "castle in the air" to build up the surroundings with residences, schools and market centres. The "salacious" hobbies of dance and the theatre intruded on the Kirk's disdain and overcame it. Promenading, weather permitting, was no longer hazardous. Although whisky replaced ale as the most consumed drink, imbibing moved from ale house to town house. This practice helped enable the role women to improve and conversations expanded to include both sexes.
Buchan has granted us a vivid and readable account of Edinburgh's burst of intellectual and social hatching. He does assume a certain level of knowledge on the reader's part - a level unlikely to be found on this side of the Atlantic. He graces the narrative with some illustrative material, but no matter how much the publishers include, there couldn't be enough. The maps of the city would be more useful if larger, but the tone the time is well conveyed. Some of his conclusions might be arguable, but his making Charles the son, and not the grandson, of Erasmus Darwin must be noted. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
It also provides easy reference in Kindle format for people who work/volunteer as a guide in historic properties within the city, like myself.
But direct reading shows that James Buchan's move from fiction to history is a disappointment. Capital of the Mind, reads like the first draft of concatenated research notes, combining quotations from primary sources with poorly constructed original text. This is a very tough read. My strong interest in the subject was repeatedly buffeted by verbose descriptions, most of which were by the author, not just weighty quotations from the eighteenth century. James Buchan has an obsession with the use of superfluous, often misleading, adjectives, many of which he has created. Though not actually misleading, the author's new adjective "Humean", when applied to philosophy, is considerably less readable than the clearer phrases such as "David Hume's" or "of David Hume".
This book has a mass of incorrect grammar and inappropriate plurals ("the George Squares or Charlotte Squares"). Such interesting material could have been so much more clearly organised. There is no need to say more; this is not a book to tackle, as I had hoped to do, from start to finish.
For the reader who dips into the topic from time to time, and wishes a different type of reference volume from those that are more academic, it may be worth buying. But the poor writing makes one suspect the provenance of the material. A redeeming feature is the index, which will help those who seek particular information. The notes to each chapter indicate sources of most statements. Even there though, some organisation would have been valuable (there is little point in repeating "ibid" and the same page number in straight sequences!).
Ironically, the publisher, John Murray, has a publishing genealogy which originated in Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. It is sad that John Murray's proofreaders of today did not ensure that the "Capital of the Mind --" was as precisely written as were poems prepared for the "Scots Magazine" in the 1740s. I trust and hope that there will be a greatly revised second edition of this book; that would not go amiss before publishing as a paperback. With many hours of additional work this could still become a classic; without change it may be bought but it will not be read!
If you cannot resist checking out my opinions here, be prepared for a test of great endurance.
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