Crowded with Genius

James Buchan

Read October, 2006

Buchan's book explores that crucial moment when Edinburgh became the crucible for the formation of the modern temper. It is a startling story indeed: how a dingy, dirty, provincial backwater suddenly glowed incadescent and, in a period of less than half a century, hosted notables—David Hume, Adam Smith—who rethought social and scientific foundations. Buchan's work is a study of this place and time. It is a book of formidable scholarship (the endnotes themselves make for fascinating reading), yet told with passion.

Somehow, though, the book didn't come together for me. Perhaps there was too much detail, detail that would have come alive while walking through the streets of the town but that fell flat while trying to picture it through the mind's eye from thousands of miles away. Perhaps it was the somewhat rude appropriation for Edinburgh people and events whose marks could equally be ascribed elsewhere (not least Glasgow). Most of all, though, even having finished the book, I couldn't put my finger on the spark that lit the flame. That the events of Forty Five were significant there was never much doubt, and Buchan explores them in detail (including Colin Maclaurin's—yes, he of the series—spirited, almost Archimedean defense); but what, precisely, led to that flowering of genius? I am now better informed, but not more enlightened.

It is difficult not to compare this to Herman's book. This is more scholarly, but Herman is able to take similar material and weave together a much more compelling story. At a remove of several years (and without my copy of Herman's book to hand) it's hard to offer a more precise contrast, but: I'm glad to have read both, but if I had to choose only one, it would be Herman's.