Monday, July 18, 2011

Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik

It turns out that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin have much more in common than a shared birthday. New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik proves this with Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life, a book of great insight and educative value, and an inside look into the human element beyond the history books.

Angels and Ages is a collection of six essays chronicling the two men’s lives from their humble beginnings to their own ushering in of new eras with their radical ideas of democracy and evolution. This is a unique dual biography in that it addresses both facts and misconceptions; acknowledges differences yet draws parallels between the two; and reconciles their social images with their true characters: the sons, the husbands and the fathers behind the textbook knowledge the general public has.

Lincoln, born to a time of slavery and authoritarianism, is portrayed as a shrewd politician, both idealistic and pragmatic, with strong convictions and a clear vision. Meanwhile, Darwin, who inhabited a world in which the Biblical account of creation was accepted as unquestionable truth, is portrayed as a modest, doting family man and inquisitive scientist torn between his theories and his religious beliefs. Despite their differences, both men endured difficult marriages and the loss of a child (Darwin his daughter, Lincoln his son), experiences that influenced their drive to climb the social ladder and make themselves seen and heard.

Gopnik is a skillful and at times poetic wordsmith. As he addresses the historical controversy over whether Lincoln’s secretary claimed, after his death, “Now he belongs to the ages” or “to the angels,” he begs the question of whether we live in a secular or superstitious world. He provides a striking visual of time spent at the beach, surrounded by seagulls, reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and questions whether the book retains the impact it had back it in its day; whether the reader on the beach is gazing at seagulls in a new light.

Angels and Ages entertains with Gopnik’s wit and eloquence as well as his keen observations and analysis. As the reader gets to know Lincoln and Darwin as characters, they become more meaningful as icons, and if you’re not an admirer of either man, chances are this book will make you one.

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