Book review: ‘The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Looking at the world through the eyes of a 17th-century polymath.

‘The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

I first heard about Sir Thomas Browne in an essay by the late, great science essayist Stephen Jay Gould. The seventeenth-century polymath and sceptic sounded very much like the sort of person I would like to know more about. A few years later, I encountered Browne again in W.G. Sebald’s masterpiece The Rings of Saturn, in which Sebald extols the virtues of Browne’s beautiful prose, inspired by an urnfield burial site recently uncovered in Norfolk. When, while researching my book On the Moor, I discovered there was a Bronze Age urnfield burial site on my local moor, I realised it was finally time to start reading up on Sir Thomas Browne. It turned out Sebald was right: the erudition displayed in Browne’s Urne Buriall was immense, and his spiralling seventeenth-century prose mesmerising.

I like to describe myself as a Darwin groupie. Hugh Aldersey-Williams would, I presume, be happy to be described as a Thomas Browne groupie. As a rightly unabashed Browne fanboy, he sets out to explore how Thomas Browne looked at the world, and how we might benefit from being a bit more like his hero. With the exception of one chapter, in which our author imagines a conversation with the ghost of Browne, which did very little for me, it’s an entertaining read, providing plenty of food for thought, especially concerning exercising more tolerance with people whose views differ from our own.

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century is not a biography. For that, you should read the far more heavy-going Sir Thomas Browne: a life by Reid Barbour. This book is more a Brownean exploration of Brownean values.


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