James Buchan, Crowded with Genius (HarperCollins, 2003)

The claim that "insert noun here" changed the course of history is a recurring theme in popular history books these days. The often overly narrow themes can trivialize these books, cheapening their arguments. It's hard to prove this kind of sweeping justification if the subject isn't equal to the challenge. Instead of focusing on a single animal or highly specific idea, James Buchan takes the broad current of ideas that was late 18th century Edinburgh as his subject in Crowded with Genius and stakes a claim to a crucial point in the development of the Western world.

Impressively and thoroughly researched, Crowded with Genius describes the second half of the 18th century in Edinburgh. A series of detailed examinations of the significant intellectual figures of the day provides a full picture of the city's culture. Chapters are devoted to the lives of men such as David Hume and Robert Burns. Instead of dry biography, Buchan adds depth with liberal use of the original source material. Substantial quotes from primary sources (letters, poems, newspaper accounts) bring each figure to life. Buchan's own prose is well crafted to stand alongside the source material. His colorful use of language provides more sweep and drama than the typical dry history tome. The best example is his vibrant description of the excitement in Edinburgh at the coming of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745.

Edinburgh begins in Crowded with Genius as a fading backwater town. Gone is the energy and vigor the city enjoyed as a national capital -- these were lost, along with many of the nobles, in the formal unification with England in the early 18th century. Edinburgh was left to stew in Jacobite juices until 1745, when the Jacobite revolution provided the turning point for the city's development. Prince Charles' failed rebellion gave motivation to the younger generations to "out-English the English" in the accomplishments of the Enlightenment. The political crackdown on all things distinctly Scottish pushed the city's budding genius in new, more productive directions. Edinburgh developed into a town of intellectual speculation and economic vigor, with men such as David Hume and Adam Smith leading the way.

Besides the intellectual changes, the physical transformation of Edinburgh from discarded capital and backwater town to intellectual powerhouse and metropolis is laid out in exacting detail here. Large chunks of the book cover the physical development of the town. These architectural changes went hand-in-hand with the city's intellectual development. The expansion away from the Old Town is exhaustively detailed; the only things lacking are plat diagrams and maps to provide a complete image.

How do you describe the evolution of a town from a place where the cooks are so filthy that, in the words of one English traveler in the 1720s, they would stick to the wall if they were thrown against it, into the exciting city of ideas that saw the flowering of Robert Burns? Buchan does it by laying out the step-by-step evolution of Edinburgh. The links between 18th century Edinburgh and the modern age, through Smith, Hume, Burns, Black, and others, are shown with an overwhelming volume of evidence. The reader can't help but agree with Buchan that the modern world couldn't have come to its present state without the influence of Edinburgh. Significant times call for significant people. Edinburgh in the late 18th century was lucky enough to produce more than a few of these people. We all have reason to be thankful for it.

[Eric Eller]