EVER SINCE PROMETHEUS robbed the gods to give humans fire, light has been linked to culture. In English, enlightenment, illumination, and vision all imply both sight and knowledge.
In her new book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, Jane Brox explores this connection. The flame, she writes, is “much more than simply a utilitarian tool, for it holds the power to fix our gaze and free our thoughts, and it lies at the heart of our making, thinking, and dreaming.” But this odd, enchanting history goes even further, arguing that the kind of light creates the kind of culture.

Originally, light was personal: a fire pit, a candle, a whale-oil lamp. The lit area was specific, edged by dark. Maintaining the expensive flame took time and care. As lighting evolved, society evolved with it. Gaslight revolutionized theater, enabled restaurants to stay open late, made after-hours sidewalks safe for socialites in their finery. Robert Louis Stevenson, who emerges in this book as a poet of illumination, wrote of gaslight: “the city folk had stars of their own; biddable domesticated stars.” Streets lined with its haunting golden glow led to the coining of a new word: nightlife.

By the end of the nineteenth century, electric light flooded carnivals, industrial buildings, and finally homes. Stevenson, appalled at the shadow-blasting arc light, called it “a lamp for a nightmare!” He elaborated, “Mankind, you would have thought, might have remained content with what Prometheus stole for them and not gone fishing the profound heaven with kites to catch and domesticate the wildfire of the storm.” Eventually, though, electricity became inextricably linked to modernity. In the early part of the twentieth century, the incandescent bulb divided glamorous cities from country backwaters. The haves strolled by blazing marquees while the have-nots beat back the night with smoky kerosene lamps.

And now with endless light available from sources we don’t see or (many of us) understand, we have a culture of waste. Darkness has become scarce, at least in industrialized countries, and precious. Brox examines this easy vision, asking: It promotes what kinds of thought? What kinds of sleep? What kinds of dreams?

Although the first-person voice of Brox’s earlier books about farming is absent here, her intimate engagement with the subject matter remains. Occasionally, the reader will lift her head from the book, lit by a cheap clip-on lamp with a compact fluorescent bulb powered, most likely, by West Virginia coal, and think, “Am I really reading with such pleasure about rural electrification?” “Yes,” she will conclude, and return to the privilege of the bright page.