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BOOK REVIEW

‘Brilliant’ pores over light’s evolution

By Max Ross
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2010

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The sun’s pretty neat, but it comes nowhere close to satisfying 24/7 consumer demand. Prometheus, the first human to commoditize fire (and thus elongate waking hours), was certainly an ambitious entrepreneur, but his product quickly suffered from market saturation.

In “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light,’’ Jane Brox renders a history of humankind’s relationship with flames, lamps, and bulbs, and our ever-increasing dependence on them. It’s an expansive book, covering not only illuminants, but also the race relations, class struggles, and rural flight brought about by the electric grid. With its panoramic scope, though, focus is sometimes lost, as if too many people entered the picture, smiling, just as the photographer set off her flash.

Brox traces artificial light from stone lamps in the Pleistocene era up through whale oil and tallow candles, gaslight, and kerosene, and on through incandescent bulbs and fluorescent and LED lighting, succinctly explaining the discovery and impact of each innovation.

In her narrative, Brox teases out a theme suggesting that illuminants separate not just light from dark, but rich from poor. “The wealthy and powerful have always been the first to acquire new kinds of light and have always had more of it,’’ she says. In the middle of the 15th century, a pound of tallow cost half of a common laborer’s daily wage, and wax was “priceless.’’ As electric service became common in US cities in the 1930s, neighborhoods inhabited by immigrants and African-Americans “remained relentlessly in the dark.’’ Even today, rich and poor countries can be easily distinguished in satellite images from space; the wealthiest countries are the brightest. “The most glaring spots on the map,’’ says Brox, “correspond to flagrancy and prosperity.’’

Brox’s style is concise, free of unnecessary frills, and she makes effective use of primary sources. It’s apparent she has approached her subject as an interested writer — not as an expert — and her enthusiasm (and research) is evident. We’re treated to sparkling information on both micro and macro levels. We learn that early coal miners used phosphorescent fish to light their underground tunnels. We learn that, in the United States, more than $1 billion a year is spent on wasted light.

But Brox too often deviates from her narrative. Large portions of the middle chapters push light aside, focusing instead on electricity in general. She spends less time describing light’s influence on society than the influence of vacuum cleaners and electric irons.

If this were a different book, these digressions might make the material feel more complete. Here, though, the peripheral information overwhelms and undermines the principal subject. The implicit premise of “Brilliant’’ is that light itself is significant enough to warrant undivided attention. As Brox continues to pepper us with minutiae (“In time, harpooning became the favored method for hunting whales’’), the reader can’t help but sense that light’s history isn’t so singularly compelling after all.

Perhaps most disappointing is that she considers light only as an illuminant, neglecting its other potential functions. Integral to artificial light’s progression and its future are its uses beyond the visual. Innovations in linguistics and in medicine (Morse code, light therapy) are myriad and ongoing; fiber optics specialists are currently developing computers powered by light. Brox’s contemplation of the future, meanwhile, is mainly limited to the invention of more efficient bulbs.

We live in an era where information has become a perpetually more valuable commodity. And “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 teaches creative writing at New York University. He can be reached at maxlyonross@gmail.com.

BRILLIANT: The Evolution of Artificial Light By Jane Brox

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pp., $25