Brilliant The Evolution of Artificial Light

TIME Magazine’s “Top 10 Everything of 2010” names BRILLIANT #5 among the Top 10 Nonfiction Books

PopMatters lists BRILLIANT in “The Best Non-Fiction of 2010”

From an award-winning author, a sweeping history of our transformative relationship to light.

In Brilliant, Jane Brox traces the fascinating history of human light from the stone lamps of the Pleistocene to the LEDs embedded in fabrics of the future—and reveals that the story of light is also the story of our evolving selves. As Brox uncovers the social and environmental implications of the human desire for more and more light, she captures with extraordinary intensity the feel of historical eras: the grit and difficulty of daily life during the long centuries of meager illumination when crude lamps and tallow candles constricted waking hours; and the driven, almost crazed pursuit of whale oil and coveted spermaceti across the world’s oceans.

She indelibly portrays, too, the emergence of a vibrant street life under gaslight, a new illumination which not only opened up the evening hours to leisure, but also fundamentally changed the ways we live and sleep. These changes became all the more pronounced with the advent of incandescent light, as Edison’s “tiny strip of paper that a breath would blow away” produced illumination that seemed to its users all but divorced from human effort or cost. And yet, as Brox’s informative, chilling portrait of our current grid system shows, the cost is ever with us.

Brilliant is a compelling story imbued with human voices, startling insights, and—only a few years before it becomes illegal to sell most incandescent light bulbs in the United States—timely questions about how the light of the future will shape our lives.

TIME Magazine’s
 “Top 10 Everything of 2010” names BRILLIANT #5 among the Top 10 Nonfiction Books

“It takes a special turn of mind to even think of writing a history of artificial light. But Jane Brox takes this curious, thin slice of history and makes of it a dazzling epic…. Brox takes us through the age of gaslight and arc light and into our strange present, in which true darkness is a precious vanishing resource, even at night, and we read by the light of our own glowing books.”
> Read the review and see the entire list

PopMatters lists BRILLIANT in “The Best Non-Fiction of 2010”

“Seeing the broad strokes of history laid out in front of you, it’s difficult not to see a form taking shape in the flickering candlelight. Brox shows that technology, as extensions of our own bodies and minds, are what shape humanity; not the messages contained in the technology, nor the petty power struggles of day to day politics and ideologies. We have made our tools, and in turn our tools have made us.”
> Read the review and see the entire list

READ AN EXCERPT from Brilliant

> As featured in ‘By the Book’ at PopMatters 

REVIEWS of Brilliant

“Jane Brox’s extraordinary history of artificial light is aptly named. It’s not just a record of technological innovation; it’s a great human fable about how we went from desperately fending off darkness to searching for the last vestiges of true night in a light-bedazzled world.”

“Ruminative and curious, Brox excels at discussing the cultural and psychological changes wrought by more and better light…. Brilliant is an intriguing investigation of a state of being – well lighted – that we take utterly for granted.”
The New York Times Book Review

This is an illuminating, beautifully written history…. pretty much every page has something that makes you go “wow.”
The Guardian

“….An addictively readable cultural history. In a word: dazzling.”
Entertainment Weekly

Brilliant is an eloquent account of how a luxury so quickly became a necessity, and permanently changed human history.” (Best Books of the Month, July 2010)

“America roared into the electric age and didn’t stop to consider what it had wrought…. Ms. Brox’s narrative is in many ways a social history, told through man’s relationship to light.”
The New York Times

“[L]ike Edison’s incandescent bulb… Brox’s history is warm and illuminating.”
The Washington Post

“With grace and authority, Ms. Brox traces the ascendance of artificial light and considers its effect on human culture and psychology.”
The Wall Street Journal (Featured in Summer Book Preview)

Brilliant is a thought-provoking account of arguably one of the greatest technological changes in the history of the world…. [A]rtificial lighting has helped make the modern world we live in, and Brox has done a first-rate job in telling its story.”
The Seattle Times

“A superb history of how the availability of ever more artificial light has changed our world over the centuries, from stone lamps in prehistoric caves to contemporary light-emitting diodes (LEDs). No simpleminded technological determinist, Brox (Here and Nowhere Else) appreciates how culture and technology have affected each other at every stage. She repeatedly reveals how humankind’s increasing ability to extend the hours of light available for work and for leisure has been critical to the evolution of societies almost everywhere. Her readings of, for example, prehistoric southern French caves, medieval and early modern villages, whaling and other ships, industrializing cities, Chicago’s White City of 1893, and wartime and peacetime blackouts are invariably fascinating and often original. In addition, she conveys technical information clearly and concisely. Brox’s concluding portions, about the unexpected negative effects of too much artificial light on observatories in southern California and elsewhere, are provocative and dismaying. With Brox’s beautiful prose, this book amply lives up to its title.”
Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)

“A curious thing begins to happen as you read [Brilliant]. You begin to notice things. The humming of the fluorescent lights in a coffee shop, the ubiquitous street lamps as you walk home, the lights that you thoughtlessly turn on…. By pooling hundreds of resources and many first person accounts [Brox] tells a story that resonates with meaning and is almost psychedelic in its expansive reach. Through the historical narrative you begin to feel connected to technology, to see the human hand that underlies what have become ‘shiny, pretty, things….’ Jane Brox has given us a book that illuminates not only the history of artificial light, but the history of our supersonic push into the future. It’s a book that deserves to be read, if only to underscore a past that seems dimmer and dimmer as the days rush by.”

“Brox looks at the entire history of illumination from the Ice Age forward, explaining not only the development of different lighting technologies through history, but helping us understand what each meant to the people whose lives they so profoundly changed.”
Indie Next Notable Book, July 2010

“NBCC Award finalist Brox examines our relationship with light, our attempts to harness it to brighten places we cannot see, and its impact on American psychology and culture. Her book dovetails beautifully with the social history of technology, as our relationship with light has encompassed the development of candles, lamps, light bulbs, and even far-reaching sociotechnical systems. Brox seems at her best exploring electrification’s impact on early 20th-century rural America…. Particularly engaging are her discussion of Franklin Roosevelt’s establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority, its designers’ hopes of engineering a better society, and the realities of its implementation…. This well-written, well-researched, and thought-provoking book has much to offer. The general reader with an interest in the (social) history of technology will find it both a source of inspiration for considering technology’s impact on our lives and a springboard to more scholarly works such as David Nye’s Electrifying America.”
– Library Journal

“Brox vividly evokes the dark old days…. [She] is a good explainer and here she’s at her best, unraveling the mysteries of the 300,000 miles of high-powered transmission lines that we Americans have come to depend upon – and occasionally curse…. Read this book and you’ll understand why.”
The Dallas Morning News

“Few people today appreciate the impact the incandescent lamp made following its invention in 1879. In Brilliant, Jane Brox captures the before-and-after. Beginning with lamps carved from limestone 40,000 years ago, she expertly traces the tortuous route to artificial light…. [A]fter seeing the value of light before electricity, and how much people achieved under a candle’s glow, you may think twice when you flick the switch.”
New Scientist

“After reading Brilliant, you’ll never take life for granted again…. Jane Brox, has composed an enlightened look into the evolution of artificial light…. One of the most inviting prologues I have ever read lures you into the book. Brox covers it all from the first lanterns at sea, to gas light and the emergence of the incandescent electric lamp….”
San Francisco Book Review

Brilliant is more than an eloquent and gorgeous history of artificial light; it is a survey of profound experiences long lost to the human senses, imagination and heart. Brox reveals how light and darkness create intimacy and isolation, mark periods of rest, work and dreaming, and she demonstrates how light divorces us from and damages the natural world. All students of literature, history and art should read Brilliant; anyone interested in what it means to be human should read it, too.”

“Fascinating history.”
– The Telegraph of London

“An absorbing book.”
– The Financial Times of London

“[An] odd, enchanting history.”

“Invaluable and thought-provoking, Brox’s inquiry into artificial light reminds us that the too-much-of-a-good-thing paradox is inherent in all of our technological endeavors.”

Brilliant is, well, brilliant.”
Maine Sunday Telegram

Brilliant…engulfs the reader in darkness and then metes out light — and illumination — with each chapter. You’ll never flip a switch nonchalantly again.”
Louisville Courier-Journal

> Newsday

ADVANCE PRAISE for Brilliant

“Just one of the many pleasures of Jane Brox’s sweeping history of human light is its evocation of the wonder and fascination the lowly light bulb roused when it was new, before it became, by virtue of the reverse alchemy of mass production, abundant and déclassé. Brox succeeds brilliantly thanks to writing that rivals her subject in sparkle, glow, and wattage.”
– Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

“I’ll gladly read anything by Jane Brox on any subject, but her poetic and original retelling of the story of manmade light provides a suitably grand occasion for her superb powers of observation and her intimate, precise, startlingly evocative prose to shine.”
– Carlo Rotella, author of Cut Time

Brilliant is fascinating in its subject matter, charming in its storytelling and accessible style, and meticulously researched. This kind of book helps place science in a human context.”
– Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams

“In gracious, elegant, unhurried prose, Jane Brox unspools the story of light. Every page contains at least one small marvel, but the greatest wonder is the realization that what she has illuminated is nothing less than a story of ourselves, and of the myriad ways our lives are ‘interconnected, contingent, and intricate.’ BRILLIANT, indeed.”
– Leah Hager Cohen , author of Train Go Sorry and House Lights