As you read Steven Johnson’s “Wonderland,’’ about how the human impulse to play has shaped our world, you can almost hear yourself at the bar sharing nuggets that you’ve picked up in its pages. “Can you believe the bicycle wasn’t invented until the middle of the 1800s?” “Did you know that the vanilla plant could only be fertilized by a special Mexican bee? And that it took a 12-year-old slave to figure out that the plant had male and female reproductive organs and could fertilize itself?”
“Wonderland’’ brims with these sorts of tidbits, memorable moments, and bits of information that light up the mind. Johnson argues that play — our pursuit of surprise, pleasure, stimulation — is the primordial ooze from which our biggest advances, innovations, and revolutions rise.
In six chapters — on fashion and shopping, music, food and taste, illusions, games, and public space — he demonstrates, for example, how the appeal of a fetching shade of purple or a new pattern on soft fabric led to the emergence of the seasonally shifting fashion industry, consumer culture, and malls. Consider that curiosity about the flavors of pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg fueled international trade and the rise of a global culture and that Mesoamericans who turned a sticky white liquid from plants into balls propelled the rubber industry. Johnson writes, “The rubber balls of the Olmecs make it clear that games do not just help concoct new metaphors or ways of imagining society. They can also drive advances in materials science.”
Johnson (“How We Got to Now’’), a writer who hangs out at the intersection of science, technology, and culture, surprises and delights as he traces the path of how various objects of fun and fancy — mechanized dolls, follies, and music boxes — drove advances, but perhaps most compelling is his chapter on how public spaces sparked seismic shifts in thinking.
Remember the bar? Sitting there, chatting about bicycles and vanilla beans, you might also recall that drinking establishments have historically been innovation incubators. Johnson argues that the pub — a place for relaxation between work and home, “a structure designed explicitly for the casual pleasures of leisure time . . . [existing] somewhere else on the grid of social possibility” — has been the birthplace of democracy, the site of the start of the LGBT movement at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles and the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, and a thermometer for the future of race relations in America. Sadly, Johnson fails to mention that women were long banned from taverns; he does, however, note that they were excluded from European coffeehouses, which fomented the growth of public museums, “formal stock exchanges,” and the creation of the journalistic class.
Johnson’s tone is sometimes that of an enthusiastic professor and at others that of a salesman trying with oozy smarts and charm to convince you of things you might not want to buy. The breeziness sometimes masks some questionable leaps in thinking, such as how women’s taste for calico, made from cotton, fueled the rise of slavery. And there are other slippery bits here, but the ideas are generally so intriguing and Johnson such an enthusiastic guide that the ride is consistently entertaining if not always solid.
One of the most memorable moments comes in a story about Charles Darwin visiting a London zoo. There, the naturalist spends time watching Jenny, an orangutan zookeepers dressed like an British schoolgirl and taught to drink tea. “Months before the famous ‘Malthusian epiphany’ where he allegedly hit on the theory of natural selection,” Darwin notes his encounter with Jenny in his journal: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.” What we can take away from “Wonderland’’ is a definitive sense that the light bulbs of the best ideas aren’t necessarily lit when we’re bound to our desks, but when we’re seeking out the pleasure of the new.
How Play Made the Modern World
By Steven Johnson
Riverhead, 322 pages, $30
Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter” and can be reached at email@example.com.