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Book Review

‘How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World’


bookCourtesy of Beaverdale Books

Review by Sally Wisdom

Riverhead Books

Sept. 30, 2014



304 Pages

The symbiotic relationship between insects and flowering plants created an opportunity for hummingbirds to extract nectar from plants. To do so, they had to evolve an ability to hover in a way no other species of bird can. In his fascinating book, “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World,” Steven Johnson describes how “the hummingbird effect” of certain innovations, or clusters of innovations, triggered chains of innovations in seemingly unrelated fields.

Johnson identifies six topics: glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light, and skillfully describes how one innovation led to others, not infrequently beginning with accidental coincidences.

He describes how after the fall of Constantinople, a small group of Turkish glassmakers sailed westward and settled in Venice. Because the intense heat of their kilns ignited too many fires in a city of predominantly wood structures, the glassmakers were banished to the island of Murano. There, the close, somewhat isolated community of glassmakers was able to perfect the manufacturing of glass more rapidly than would have been possible had they been more widely dispersed.

Johnson takes the reader on an absorbing fact-filled journey through interconnected, sometimes cascading events. The rapid and vast societal changes spurred by these innovations, some relatively recent, are almost hard to fathom. This engaging and thought-provoking chronicle is fascinating popular history. CV

Sally Wisdom retired from the Des Moines Public Library in 2011 and found her dream job at Beaverdale Books soon after.

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