Geography of Genius. Geography of Whatever.
“The Geography of Genius” is in structure nearly identical to the author’s earlier book “The Geography of Bliss.” The author travels the world, meets a bunch of fairly interesting locals to study his topic and pretty much ignores or misinterprets any true social science associated with the subject.
The book is way too long given its content. Out of 320 pages, there must be close to 160 narrating his meeting with locals having a meal at a hip restaurant or cafe. It reads like Facebook staring at a bunch of breakfast pictures.
He attempts to position himself as some brilliant contrarian. And, he is repeatedly obsessed in rebutting some of the basics of social sciences. His first tenet is that intelligence has nothing to do with genetics. You can research this topic for no more than 30 seconds and find an abundance of well established sources contradicting him. His second tenet is that the social clustering of geniuses has little to do with the network effect. He denies the network effect by associating it with groupthink, which is a completely different phenomenon; or by making an absurd example. Prisons have no network effect producing work of geniuses even though people are close together. The only worthwhile answer to this argument is John McEnroe’s “you can’t be serious.” And, throughout the book you feel like invoking McEnroe at least 10 times over. The author sticks with his contrarian “brilliance” till the very end. Now, he criticizes the related work of Richard Florida who identified some of the elements of creative cities: the three Ts: technology, talent, and tolerance. The author instead advances it is the three Ds: disorder, diversity, and discernment. Again, this type of ready dismissal of social research calls for another McEnroe moment.
Meanwhile, the entire book provides ample evidence of the network effect on just about every other pages. It also provides ample evidence of the “nature” element in IQ such as his uncovering of the success of the Jewish community throughout various part of the world. Thus, the author contradicts his own contrariness throughout. Also, on a lighter level he attributes some of the successes to both Athens and Silicon Valley to the incredibly pleasant weather that facilitates leisurely cogitation. That’s only to advance that Edinburgh success was due to its really poor weather that represented an adversity that human genius had to overcome. But, later in the book he will advances that necessity is not the mother of invention. Thus, the author contradicts himself numerous times throughout the book on various topics. It is like a vicious feedback loop.
This book would have been a heck of a lot better if written by Richard Florida, an established social scientist who conducts extensive research on related subjects. Another great candidate would be Michael Lewis who is far superior to this author on all dimensions. His nonfiction books are far more engaging, entertaining, much better researched, and far more informative.
An acclaimed travel writer pays for his trip around the world under the guise of searching for genius. Its amusing. His prose and the people he meet are colorful and visual. It makes me want to be a travel writer.
Enjoyed this book so much I have ordered copies for a college student granddaughter and a Stanford computer science graduate grandson who is starting his own company. Both can learn from what makes creativity work, understanding the past and hopefully applying the insights that Weiner so entertainingly gives in this romp through historical time and place.
What is Genius? Where does it come from? What created the clusters of genius that were the Golden Ages of history? These are the questions addressed by this book.
The author examines individual genius, looking at commonalities in background, circumstance and personality among individual geniuses, but his real focus is the blossoming of clusters of genius. He examines in detail: Ancient Athens, China’s Song Dynasty (969 – 1276 AD), Renaissance Florence, the Scottish Enlightenment, Calcutta from 1840 to 1920, musical Vienna around 1800 and multi-disciplinary Vienna around 1900, and Silicon Valley.
The book is less about the individual geniuses, other than as illustrations, and more about the milieu that allowed multiple geniuses to flourish at one time. What was it about a specific time and place that produced an outburst of creativity, usually in multiple disciplines at the same time? Weiner pulls together the results of research on the subject.
The book is well written and a very engaging read. Weiner describes not only the results of his research but the process. He describes the conversations with his sources and the locales where they occurred, making the book part travelogue (He is a travel writer). And there is quite a bit of humour.
This is a fascinating look at the circumstances surrounding the nurturing and blossoming of genius. However, I have the feeling that Weiner underplays the importance of in-born genius. Many people faced similar circumstances but did not become geniuses. While he claims that genetics plays little or no part, there must be an initial spark present, a seed that will respond to the nurturing and opportunity. A previous reviewer complained that many geniuses were left out of the book. This is true but that was not the point of the book. Many geniuses were not part of a cluster and it is the clusters and their cross-fertilization of ideas that are the focus of this examination. The same reviewer questioned the quality of Weiner’s research and some of the facts presented. I am not in a position to know whether or not his complaints are justified.
All in all, an informative and entertaining read.
This guy is really into the George Leonard School of Writing: continuously citing supposition as fact!
Of course Michael Faraday didn't attend college - - he came from a quite impoverished background!
Yes, Bill Gates was a college dropout --- but Gary Kildall, the creator of the operating system, CP/M [which Gates & co. ripped off and renamed DOS], had a master's degree!
The author, Weiner, states that Leonardo da Vinci was a poor student. Having read just about every book published on Leonardo in four languages, the overwhelming evidence is that he was a superlative student, but his life was legally circumscribed due to his bastard birth [couldn't legally marry, couldn't legally father children, was only legally allowed three occupations - - which Weiner got wrong also - - any infraction was punishable by death].
When the author speaks of education and genius, he assumes the educational process to be an absolute, never changing or varying through the ages - - we call this type of assumption sheer idiocy!
Weiner has a very annoying habit of trivializing Leonardo [would highly recommend the brilliant physicist, Fritjof Capra, and his book, Learning From Leonardo, to appreciate the extent of Leonardo's genius].
Weiner, predictably, blames the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba on President Kennedy, ignoring that it was planned under Eisenhower and Nixon, and Kennedy had just commanded a PT boat in WWII, while Eisenhower commanded EVERYTHING - - even so, JFK had serious reservations and decided against the all-out invasion, and the planned assassination of Castro, being assured a local uprising would ensue - - and the CIA was wrong again, of course! [Having a Soviet satellite state so close to America was strategically intolerable back then, but the author fails to note that, naturally, even though JFK was extremely anti-colonialist, highly supportive of African independence from Algeria to Kenya - - such thinking not susceptible to Weiner's irresponsible trivialization!
[Weiner appears completely oblivious to true genius such as GFB Riemann, Nicola Tesla, Philo Farnsworth, Edwin Armstrong, Gary Starkweather - - demonstrating a failing grasp of his subject matter!]
How do you define "genius"? In Eric Weiner's case, simply being super-smart isn't good enough; he thinks of "genius in the creative sense," meaning those people who think of amazing and useful new ideas. Because he's fascinated by the topic ("in much the way a naked man is fascinated by the subject of clothing," he says), he traveled the world to examine the connection between setting and innovation. Weiner talked to locals and scholars to better understand why places like ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, 20th-century Vienna, and modern-day Silicon Valley have incubated an exorbitant number of geniuses. This "witty, entertaining romp" (New York Times) is a good fit for curious fans of Bill Bryson looking for other amusing authors to read.
Author Eric Weiner asks (and mostly answers) the question: "Is there a reason why certain places in history had so many geniuses?" And then he provides examples of these genius locales, starting with Ancient Greece, followed by Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna and Silicon Valley. Could Weiner have chosen different genius-sparking locales? Yes, of course--New Orleans and the birth of jazz, Paris in the 20s (or Berlin), New York City at many different times...
However, the fact that Weiner made choices made the book stronger, because of the diversity--in historical period, location, and the achievements. Just reading about these different places and people made me hungry both for travel and for knowledge. I didn't know a thing about Hangzhou, China before reading this, and now I know more about the poetry, art and technology that came from there.
This was a very good mix of research, travel, sociology, history and humor. The knowledge gained will have you asking new questions about creativity in your profession or at home.
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