By Yukiko Kishinami / Japan News Staff WriterWonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
By Steven Johnson
Did you know that spook shows in 18th-century Leipzig were an ancestor of today’s cinemas? Or that music was the first thing in the world to be programmed, encoded and decoded by a machine?
“Wonderland” is an eye-opening book about world history seen from a perspective different from that of most history books: aesthetic pleasure, meaning play, amusement and all kinds of delights, from the game of chess to coffeehouses, and how they changed the world.
It’s a departure from conventional history books about wars, monarchies and political or sociological changes. “Yet the history of delight matters, too,” argues the author, Steven Johnson.
“A surprising amount of modernity has its roots in another kind of activity: people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes,” he writes.
Thus he brings us along on a journey through centuries of tireless searches for things that please. He follows the explorers seeking cloves and other spices in Indonesia or the Tyrian purple dyes from a certain seashell off the North African coast. He tells us how Columbus was amazed to see a ball that bounces in what is now Haiti, or that games of chance, namely dice games, laid the foundation for probability theory, which gave rise to the insurance industry and contributed to the safety record of modern aviation.
Johnson does not shy away from pointing out the negative repercussions to those discoveries and innovations: slavery and child labor brought about by the cotton trade in part to please wealthy ladies in Restoration-era London caught up in a calico craze, or the unignorable increase of shoplifting and kleptomania after the arrival of Le Bon Marche in Paris, the world’s first department store, which led to radical changes in the study of psychology.
Between the introduction and the conclusion, there are six chapters: “Fashion and Shopping,” “Music,” “Taste,” “Illusion,” “Games” and “Public Space.” Each chapter is filled with delightful and surprising anecdotes that are worth a Hollywood film or two, such as the strange collaboration between composer George Antheil and movie star Hedy Lamarr, who was also an amateur inventor, in the invention of a frequency hopping technique to prevent the Nazis from detecting signals sent to a remote-controlled torpedo, which evolved into spread-spectrum technology now used in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
The author is a popular science writer and the key man in the 2014 TV documentary series “How We Got To Now.” A brilliant storyteller and an entertainer himself by virtue of his writing, he sometimes makes an abrupt yet well-calculated jump from one topic to another seemingly unrelated subject. Of course, there is always a hidden connection, which he explains with gusto. By the third chapter, you become used to his ways and eagerly read on to learn more and be entertained.
Because there are so many subjects to cover, from Merlin’s Mechanical Museum in 18th-century London to Walt Disney’s plan for the future city EPCOT, the book inevitably feels a little bit like a jumbled toy box. But what’s more fascinating to anyone who is a child at heart than a cache of toys?
Where to Read
In a secluded cafe in a big city where you can read intently and then head to the shops or a cinema.