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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

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Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us. An ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings, he seems made of flesh rather than of marble. In bestselling author Walter Isaacson's vivid and witty full-scale biography, we discover why Franklin seems to turn to us from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind his new-fangled spectacles. By bringing Franklin to life, Isaacson shows how he helped to define both his own time and ours.

He was, during his 84-year life, America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical—though not most profound—political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt. He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances, local lending libraries and national legislatures. He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation's federal compromise. He was the only man who shaped all the founding documents of America: the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace treaty with England, and the Constitution. And he helped invent America's unique style of homespun humor, democratic values, and philosophical pragmatism.

But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. America's first great publicist, he was, in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.

Through it all, he trusted the hearts and minds of his fellow "leather-aprons" more than he did those of any inbred elite. He saw middle-class values as a source of social strength, not as something to be derided. His guiding principle was a "dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people." Few of his fellow founders felt this comfort with democracy so fully, and none so intuitively.

In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin's amazing life, from his days as a runaway printer to his triumphs as a statesman, scientist, and Founding Father. He chronicles Franklin's tumultuous relationship with his illegitimate son and grandson, his practical marriage, and his flirtations with the ladies of Paris. He also shows how Franklin helped to create the American character and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.

586 pages, Paperback

First published July 1, 2003

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About the author

Walter Isaacson

82 books15.2k followers
Walter Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair of CNN, and editor of Time. He is the author of 'Leonardo da Vinci; The Innovators; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. Visit him at Isaacson.Tulane.edu and on Twitter at @WalterIsaacson

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,567 reviews
Profile Image for Dylan.
15 reviews
January 2, 2008
If Alexander Hamilton is one of the most underappreciated of the Founders then Benjamin Franklin is one of the most misunderstood. Isaacson ends his book with a concluding chapter that details this misundestanding. Throughout history each generation has taken a new look at Benjamin Franklin. As the author points out, Thoreau mocked him, Carnegie adored him and D.H. Lawrence despised him. So who was right, and why?

Isaacson, while pointing out his faults and follies, does not hide his own admiration for Franklin. An interesting historical test is to consider that Franklin's style and personal life often overshadow his professional accomplishments and civic contributions. Because he lived apart from his wife, flirted with women, wrote about the science of farts and beget an illigitimate child the general public has ignored his historical importance. Rather than donning the frills and wigs of Paris, a trap Jefferson quickly fell into, Franklin purposefully wore plain suits, no wig and often times his famous fur hat. A man who set trends without trying, one of Franklin's greatest gifts was the ability to accomplish great things without anyone else realizing it.

His feigned naivite, strategic avoidance of conflict and simple appearance made him the perfect man to discover electricity and promote the lightning rod; propose a union of the colonies in 1759; negotiate for the repeal of the Stamp Act; carve out a treaty with and multiple loans from France; negotiate peace with Britain; champion the Connecticut compromise for a bi-cameral legislature, one with representation based on population, the other with equal representation frome each state; and propose the complete abolition of slavery.

Isaacson makes clear, and he is quite convincing, that while Franklin had his faults, he was revered in his own time, accomplished as much or more than any other Founder, and deserves to be considerd as one of America's most historically important statesman. Franklin's personal creed was that doing good things for others was the ultimate form of religion. In life and in death (in his will he set up a trust fund for young tradesman in Philadelphia and Boston) he practiced his religion dutifully. A religion that we in America would do well to retrieve.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,613 reviews12.8k followers
June 14, 2019
Seeking to continue my trek to better understand the birth of America and its Founding Fathers, I tackled Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin. The book offers not only a great examination of the man, but also a wonderful set of vignettes related to all the activities Franklin undertook in his life. This most eclectic of men, the fifth generation of the youngest son of the youngest son, dazzled many he met and Isaacson's presentation surely will pull in many readers as well. In Isaacson's examination, three themes emerge related to Franklin's persona: a common man, the inquisitive thinker, and the great Founding Father. Using these themes and Isaacson's strong narrative, the reader learns so much in this one tome, all of which helps better shape the view of this most varied of the early men who shaped America.

At no point did Ben Franklin make himself out to be anything other than a common man. He lived a simple life and grew up surrounded by sixteen siblings in a household where frugality was itself considered posh. Becoming self-sufficient at a young age, Franklin sought to make a name for himself in the Philadelphia region becoming a printer at a young age and beginning a career that would make him a household name before any of his Founding roles. He sought to educate the masses with the written word, from tracts to pamphlets and even into satirical books, proving that the pen has its might and can sway as effectively as the sword. Isaacson offers a dose of humanness to Franklin by discussing his dalliances that brought about a bastard son, William, but balances the scales when showing that Franklin did not shirk from his responsibilities. Franklin did marry and have a legitimate family of his own, but they seemed to take a secondary place to his work and eventually to his curiosities, as mentioned below. Franklin remained well rooted throughout his life, even when politics came knocking, differentiating himself from the likes of the military Washington or highly political Jefferson. A common man to the last of his days, Franklin always sought the best for his fellow man without pretentiousness or a sense of entitlement.

That Franklin was always thinking appears to be a recurring thread in Isaacson's narrative. Franklin never stopped wondering what was and what might be, given the chance. As early as when he began publishing, Franklin sought to better the lives of those around him by pushing the limits of the day and expressing a concrete desire to grow. Franklin printed his stories and ideas to force the common man to think about life and how he presents himself, hoping to open the mind up to new ideas or a better means of living the current one. Isaacson illustrates Franklin's ideas which included fire brigades, property insurance, and even public lending libraries. He saw an opening and a need and simply presented a plan in the microcosm of Philadelphia, which blossomed into something most people take for granted. Moving into the world of science, Franklin espoused a greater interest in opening new channels of thinking, but always practical ideas rather than esoteric or theoretical ones. Franklin began discoveries of electrical conversion and conservation by creating primitive batteries, curiosities around electric fencing, and paved the way for future theoretical scientists to formulate some of the ideas Franklin found while tinkering. Isaacson presents Franklin's ideas in such a way as to elevate his stature without leaving the reader to think he was better than anyone else, something biographers of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson fail to do in their respective tomes. Franklin did things for the curiosity of it and used that questioning spirit to help those around him. These ideas have, presently, become so ensconced in daily life that to learn of their inventor may leave the reader in awe.

Franklin's concern for the common man and his innovative mind spawned a retired life where politics played a central role. Early in the tome, Isaacson mentions that Franklin was the only Founding Father who had a hand in all of the documents related to the eventual sovereignty of America. While he was strongly loyal to the British Crown, he did see some of the issues his fellow colonists felt, particularly in the realm of taxation and control of local affairs. Isaacson discusses Franklin's plan to create a form of legislative agreement that would allow regional and even colonial issues to be handled within the region, while working with the Crown and permitting a British overseer. This idea could have, Isaacson posits, curtailed the need for the Revolutionary War and likely allowed a more Canadian-based solution to the colonial quagmire (the latter part of this point is not Isaacson's but my political insight). It failed and Franklin stood firm with his colonial brothers in fighting for equality and representation. Franklin was elected to represent Pennsylvania at the bargaining table in London, but all his insight could not sway the likes of HRH George III, which precipitated the eventual War of Independence. With extensive sections of the tome dedicated to Franklin's various diplomatic positions, in both London and Paris, during those years ahead of the War and the period of peace negotiations. Franklin stopped at nothing to secure America's support from European allies and to temper the issues arising in the Mother Country. Isaacson does a masterful job at presenting this, as well as arguing that Franklin was likely the single man able to quell the size of the fight put up by the British during this colonial divorce proceedings. All this and the number of "who's who" historical figures that Franklin encountered and liaised with will surely astound the reader to no end. Isaacson does not shy away from examining Franklin's extensive work on constitutional documents, after Britain negotiated a settlement. While Franklin was elderly and not the greatest orator, his ideas were firmly rooted in democratic means, to benefit the people. Some ideas fell by the wayside when the consummate politicians scoffed at his empowering the common man, while others received strong consideration and eventually inclusion in the final constitutional documents. To call Franklin an important character in the political realm of America seems an understatement.

While Franklin showed a varied and pleasantly passionate side, a quasi-fourth theme emerges throughout the tome; Franklin's complete abandonment of his family, particularly the women. Franklin galavanted throughout the colonies and into Europe with little regard for his wife, Deborah, penning letters to her on occasion and discussing how the woman whose home he shared while working in London had become so close to him. Franklin did not return when he discovered she'd had a stroke, nor did he rush back when she died. Franklin seemed to be divorced from his spousal responsibilities and did not give it a second thought. While he penned pleasant notes to his daughter and her husband, again, Franklin made little effort to attend her wedding or play any role in her life leading up to that point. Like the man always tinkering in the garage, Franklin had too much to do and too little time for those around him, unless they were as ensconced with his actions. Add to this, the aforementioned William, his bastard son, became a Royal Governor of New Jersey and thus put him opposite Franklin for much of the younger's adult life. It is interesting to note that Franklin had a wonderful relationship with his grandchildren, as Isaacson shows throughout, no matter how poorly he treated his own children. This is an interesting theme, familial abandonment, and one that I have not seen in any of the previous Founding Father biographies. Very poignant and it does balance well against all the good that Franklin did in his life.

Isaacson's biographical sketch of Franklin is both thorough and entertaining, keeping the reader away from the quagmires of the mundane while not skimming over key aspects. Full of wonderful insights throughout, Isaacson shows the attention to detail and extensive research he undertook to weave this together. With strong themes and exceptionally off the wall observations (that Franklin's fathering of William led to two additional generations of bastard children begetting bastards) keep the reader pushing forward with interest and awe, rather than out of a sense of necessity. Like the previous figure Isaacson tackled that I have already read (Steve Jobs), the man appears to come alive through the author's wonderful prose.

Kudos, Mr. Isaacson for your sensational biography. I cannot wait to sink my teeth into your other political juggernaut (Kissinger) or scientist (Einstein).

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Profile Image for Luís.
1,790 reviews432 followers
November 8, 2021
This work is an excellent biography that pays homage to the dense and intense life of Benjamin Franklin. His scientific discoveries, with his famous kite, and his "social" inventions, will contribute to the unification of the States of America.
A very well documented biography. A few lengths in places but nothing prohibitive.
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,197 followers
July 11, 2013
An excellent start-to-finish biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life begins by touching on his childhood as best as it can considering the lack of material to work with. After that, Isaacson takes the reader through a more detailed account of Franklin's early entrepreneurial life, through his many inventions, and into his later statesmen days. I was struck by the author's well-balanced hand for both time, achievements, personal and professional details, and philosophical and political ideology. The importance of his work as a diplomat, an enchanting and emotional time in Franklin's life well dramatized by Isaacson, finally struck home to me. Benjamin Franklin provides a nice, concise, well-rounded look at a well-rounded man.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,647 reviews1,486 followers
July 22, 2013
ETA: I decided to change this to four stars since I enjoyed the author's Einstein even more, and I gave that four.


Why do YOU want to pick up a book about Benjamin Franklin? If you want his biographical details you need not even read a book, just check out Wikipedia. I wanted more. I wanted to understand his soul. I wanted to get under his skin. I wanted all the historical details in Wikipedia and more. I got what I wanted. Benjamin was an amazing person; people have only a superficial idea of who he really was. He is the guy who invented the lighting pole, that jolly fat man with a twinkle in his eye. He is the only person to have signed (and extensively worked on) the Declaration of Independence, the Peace Accord with England and the Treaty with France following the Revolution and the American Constitution. So this is a man of politics, you surmise. Yes, he was, but he was so much more. It is the breadth of all that he did that is so amazing. This is a man who changed history in not one way or two ways or merely ten ways. The world would not be the same today without this man. He has shaped the American character, given us wide ranging inventions and, yes, signed all those documents.

This is not a review of who Benjamin is, for that read this book. It is thorough. It is interesting. It is funny, and this is because Benjamin has made some outrageously amusing comments. He was a fantastic storyteller. We are not only told this but given numerous examples. The book follows a chronological path from birth to death and is concluded with a fantastic epilogue that synthesizes all the diverse threads. The book has everything you may want to know about this man, but not too much either! That is quite a feat.

I have one complaint, but it does not warrant the removal of the fifth star. My gut feeling is that the book is amazing. The author clearly admires Benjamin, and yet he does clearly point out his weak characteristics and mistakes. I quite simply wish he had more emphatically underlined the fact that although Benjamin extolled virtue and the merit of helping others, he failed so miserably in how he treated those of his family. He had all these rules of good conduct and yet he failed to be a good father and husband. The author doesn't hide is failings, but I wanted a stronger statement that revealed the disparity between what he preached and what he did! There I have said it. Benjamin was in fact a very cruel person in relation to his family, and sometimes he was very selfish and ungenerous. Why did he abandon his family and remain in Europe for fifteen years? In my mind, it was only when he finally realized he would be given neither the Ohio land grant nor the coveted office in charge of the colonies, that he returned. His reasons for remaining in Europe had been very selfish. I wanted that to be said clearly.

The narration of the audiobook by Nelson Runger was good but not excellent. He spoke clearly and slowly. I like slow narrations, but I was slightly irritated by his need to audibly swallow the saliva in his mouth. Neither do I think his female intonations were appealing. I am being very picky. These criticisms should not deter you from listening to the audiobook!

An excellent book about Benjamin Franklin. You will be surprised at learning this is a man who has much more depth and importance than you ever imagined.


Through chapter four

Having listened now through chapter four, I am beginning to see both Benjamin's good and bad personality traits. This only makes the book MORE accurate. Parts tend to be a bit preachy. Lists of the adages printed in his Poor Richard Almanacs drone on a bit too long. These almanacs were profitable, definitely a financial success. The moralizing about how to achieve virtue is a bit boring. Benjamin has even devised a "Moral Perfection Project"! He seems sometimes a bit inflated. OK, he also admits to his tendency of being too proud and adds the rule that one must try to remain humble. Anyhow, all this moralizing gets a bit hard to swallow. Enough!

The author also makes it very clear that Benjamin employs humor to achieve his goals, but his humor can become quite nasty. He adds gossip columns to his paper. Sex tidbits and crime always attract readers, so they are added too. Somehow all the moralizing about proper behavior is explained away when profits are to be made. Yes, Benjamin is a pragmatist. He usually can find a convenient explanation for why what he does is acceptable. He states that gossip leads to virtue since it puts an end to improper behavior! He does admit though it must be used with discretion.... I am not looking for a fairy tale about Benjamin but the real truth, so I am not complaining.

Only through chapter two:

Finally a book that really draws my attention and makes me happy to be reading!!

I am quite sure that this book will please. The information is clear and the author mentions details that are interesting. I am reading this book because I want to know who Benjamin Franklin was. By that I mean what kind of personality did he have, how would he instinctively react in a given situation and what are his weakness and charms. I want to know him as a blood and flesh friend; friend because I am already enchanted by his directness, dislike of elitism, humor, industriousness and ability to "bend rules".

Books were important to Benjamin. He was a youth of the Enlightenment, which appeals to me too. He lived from 1706-1790. He enjoyed Daniel Defoe's writing and shared his principles. Here is an amusing detail: Defoe thought there should be established institutions for the mentally retarded. The amusing part is that he felt a tax should be levied on authors to pay for these residences. Why? Because clearly authors had been blessed with more brain matter than the retarded. They should thus care for those more poorly endowed!

Benjamin was a vegetarian, at least for a while. He was not a vegetarian for moral reasons. By saving his money, eating less expensively, he could buy more books. Again, books are important! But then, on a boat trip, the cod sizzling on the grill smell "mmmm" so good! When filleting the fish, smaller fish had been found in the gut of the larger one, the one being cooked. He then conveniently reasoned: "If you eat one another, I don't see why we cannot eat you!" That ended his vegetarianism. Also he was on his way to a better paying job.

Clearly it helps that I like Benjamin's ability to poke fun at both himself and what he saw around him. I enjoy his tendency to rationalize, albeit in a manner that is "convenient". He knew quite well he was simply finding a convincing reason for doing exactly what he wanted.

I like this book because almost every paragraph throws in extraneous information that interests me. I didn't know that Puritanism was an effort to cleanse remnant Catholic practices from Protestantism. Puritans wanted to "purify" Protestantism. Reading this book, I am given much more than mere facts about Benjamin Franklin's life.

I am listening to the audiobook narrated by Nelson Runger. He speaks clearly and very slowly. This allows one time to take small introspective excursions as you listen, and this I like to do. If you do not like glacial narrations, perhaps you should read the paper form of the book. Listening to a book often takes longer than reading the book.
143 reviews20 followers
December 17, 2012
The only time this book caught my attention was when I fell asleep reading it in bed and dropped it on my face. I stopped reading before I hurt myself further. This fascinating insight on page 82 was the last straw, "For the last 17 years of Deborah's life, Franklin would be away, including when she died. Nevertheless, their mutual affection, respect, and loyalty - and their sense of partnership - would endure."
Profile Image for Lisa (Harmonybites).
1,834 reviews324 followers
December 15, 2012
This was a pleasure and just the kind of biography I find trustworthy. The kind that acknowledges other views and controversies and with extensive notes and sources in the back. More than that, it's the rare biography that can inspire smiles and even giggles--I'd mark this up to five stars if I could credit Isaacson for that--but the source of the humor is the frequent quotes from Benjamin Franklin himself. Isaacson said in his introduction that "Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us" and that proved to be so--his pragmatism and humor is the keynote to his character. Before reading this, if someone asked me which Founding Father I'd chose to have dinner and conversation with I think I would have chosen Jefferson. After this it's hard not to name Franklin as a favorite and the one with the most winning personality--at least if you weren't married to him. Or one of his children.

Franklin has his faults, goodness knows, and Isaacson doesn't gloss over them, but they just make him all the more poignantly human. I've heard it said that the Revolutionary War was really a civil war given how the lines between Patriots versus Loyalists cut through families. Of all the Founding Fathers, the cut was sharpest with Benjamin Franklin--his own son was the King's Governor of New Jersey and chose the opposing side. I did know that before reading this biography but there was plenty I didn't know--for instance that this man so identified with Philadelphia was born and grew up in Boston and spent so many years in England as well as Paris. Isaacson, who wrote biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs, does justice to not just Franklin the statesman but the inventor and scientist as well. And throughout and especially in his epilogue gives us not just an assessment of the man but the biography of how he was received by others such as Sinclair Lewis, D.H. Lawrence and John Updike. An engaging and lively biography.
Profile Image for Laura.
734 reviews265 followers
January 8, 2012
I loved this book. Isaacson did a fair and balanced job, describing the man without whitewashing over his flaws. By the end, I felt like Franklin was mine, like he somehow belonged to me. I knew he would be an interesting person, but I had no idea how much this man did with his life. Nor did I understand just how involved he was before there was any US at all. We could still be a British colony without him - or even a French one! Something else I never learned in school, France's involvement.

This is the opposite of a dry history book. This is real life, described in such a way that you feel like you were a part of it, and know all of the players. When Franklin left France for the last time, toward the end of his life, there were tears in my eyes. This from a confirmed history dummy who has never had an interest! Well, that's all changed now. Thank you, Mr. Isaacson, for making this old patriot leap off the pages, and for making me know and really care for him, and for history, for the first time in my life. You deserve a gold star for sure.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
461 reviews1 follower
July 7, 2008
This is a throroughly entertaining, well-researched, well-written biography of Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson. It is lengthy (over 600 pages) and one feels obligated to read the footnotes because they further the work. The first third of the book moved quickly (childhood, moving to Philadelphia, beginning life as a printer, Poor Richard's Almanac). The middle third bogs down (life in England and France, the beginning of the Revolution) and the final third picks up (back in France, negotiating the peace etc)
I realized while reading this that I had many preconceptions based on rumor regarding Franklin. Yes he was flirt and loved women, but there was only one illegitimate child (not the rumored hundreds) and he (William Franklin) became the Governor of New Jersey. Franklin's wife Deborah (with whom he had 2 children, Sally and a son who died as a child) was "common-law" because she had been abandoned by her husband who disappeared to the Carribean. Divorce was illegal and without a death certificate, she could not remarry. It appears that he loved her but she would not travel with him and never left Philadelphia. So he went alone, and often stayed away for years. Sadly, despite her wish for him to return, he was in Europe for the last 15 years of her life. ???? Hard to fathom.
On a political level much of what our country is can be attributed to Franklin's vision and support of a middle class. Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, believed that the role of education was to train the future leaders of the world by handpicking the best and brightest, and giving them the best education. Franklin totally disagreed believing that educational opportunities needed to be available to all, and based his founding of the University of Pennsylvania on those principles. Meritocracy, hard work, frugality...were beliefs he espoused throughout his life.
Isaacson has a great writing style. He is less dry than David McCullough and Joseph Ellis, but not quite up to Doris Kearns Goodwin in flow. Not a quick read, but really enjoyable.
Profile Image for Jerome Otte.
1,730 reviews
July 12, 2012
Biographies generally bore me, and this was no exception.

So pedestrian, so conventional, so obviously a poor rehashing of much better Franklin biographies that preceded this one. One wonders why Isaacson even bothered to write the book. Money, perhaps? Whatever his motivation, the result is underwhelming.

One of the difficulties with biography is that you already know most of the plot, and you probably know how it ends too. To create a sense of suspense and excitement, you need to need to do two things. First, you need to construct a "plot" that is more than just a chain of events - you need to turn this life into some kind of story. Second, you need to add enough originality and insight to give the reader something they hadn't thought of before - a new twist on a familiar tale.

Isaacson does neither. He follows Franklin from cradle to grave, covering his life with reasonable thoroughness, some attention to alternative sources and points of view, and with excellent command of English grammar and vocabulary. For this he is to be commended - his experience as a successful journalist shows. However, he has not managed to create anything that pulls the reader a long - neither the "what next" plot nor the "what will he tell me next" insights.

The fault of the book, then, is its subject, but how Isaacson writes about him. Its chief fault is the lack of narrative flair: With the notable exception of the first and last chapters, we have a chronological account broken into small sections. Here's one particularly mundane succession: "Constitutional Ideas" (a mere 2 pages)," "Meeting Lord Howe Again (5 pages)," "To France, with Temple and Benny (4 pages)." A more satisfying approach would have traced Franklin's domestic political thought in one larger chapter, but this would violate Isaakson's chronological imperative. At times the book's equally weighted, well-ordered facts yield a pace that is both plodding and boring. The book is best when it manages to integrate larger themes with the strictly biographical details.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,057 reviews52 followers
November 28, 2021
An excellent biography of America's greatest statesman. As told in this litany by Isaacson, it was astonishing to learn that so many principles of our government and constitution are in whole or in part Franklin's ideas or were ideas that Franklin advocated for. I would say that the second half of this book, Franklin as the elder statesman, was as perfect a biography as I have read.
Profile Image for Brad Feld.
Author 34 books2,338 followers
January 11, 2015
Ben Franklin is one of my heroes, along with Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and a few others. As I start my march through reading books about American presidents, I figured I’d start with a famous American who was never a president but was deeply involved in creating the situation where there could be American presidents.
I’m a big fan of Walter Isaacson and his biographies (I’ve read many of them.) Benjamin Franklin: An American Life didn’t disappoint. Isaacson is great at making a biography flow easily so it reads like a cross between a novel and a non-fiction book. The stories aren’t embellished, but they are well written, generally efficient, and extensive. If you are worried about biography as “facts and figures over time”, that’s not the mark of a good biography and definitely not Isaacson’s approach.
Being a fan of Ben Franklin, I’ve read plenty, especially as a teenager, about him. I had a healthy list of “Ben Franklin firsts” and things that Franklin was involved in. But as Amy and I watched the HBO Series John Adams recently, I became curious about how much, or how little, about Ben Franklin I really knew.
It turned out to be “how little”, not because I didn’t know much, but because the list of things Ben Franklin created, did first as a human, or enabled in America, is just remarkable. While everyone knows about his role in the American Revolution, American postmaster, printer, experiments with lightening, and invention of bifocals and the Franklin stove, here are a few that are not commonly known.
Ben Franklin:
was an amazing swimmer and created swimming fins (well – wooden ones)
created the first volunteer fire department
created the odometer
created the urinary catheter
loved to travel and was extremely nomadic between America, France, and England
created the first American musical instrument (the glass armonica)
created all the electric terminology, such as battery, charged, condense, conductor, plus / minus, positively / negatively, to go along with his experiments
helped create the first American hospital
and the list goes on and on and on.
The early Franklin was well-known for the virtues he stated and then worked on personally, not all at once, but systematically over time. When I reflect on them, I find them remarkably contemporary.
“Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
“Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
“Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
“Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
“Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
“Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
“Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
“Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
“Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
“Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
“Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
“Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
“Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
His personal life was fascinating, complex, and non-traditional. It evolved over his life time and while it doesn’t parallel mine in any way, Isaacson’s portrayal of it is robust, although there are points in time in the book where I felt Isaacson let Franklin off the hook for things that weren’t “awesome” and could have been dug into further. But, after all, we are all bags of chemicals and have lots of flaws.
His skills as a politician and negotiator were just awesome. His ability to stay calm in intense situations was awe inspiring. I knew plenty of the specific situations, but seeing Franklin’s role in them from the perspective of a biographer of Franklin was mindblowingly interesting and educational.
I’ll leave you with a few famous Franklin quotes that we repeat or hear regularly.
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing.
Content makes poor men rich; discontentment makes rich men poor.
Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Profile Image for Sue.
250 reviews33 followers
October 18, 2020
A few years ago, I had a chance to visit the Franklin museum in Philadelphia. I was stunned by the diversity of Franklin’s contributions to the new nation and to science. The all too popular image is of a bald man flying a kite under dangerous conditions, while spouting cheerful advice about thrifty and efficient living. I resolved then to learn a bit more. Besides, I am a sucker for historical biographies.

The chapters on the early years felt plodding. Perhaps there is too little actually known to flesh those chapters out to a lively narrative. The basic information is there – the spirited and opinionated printer and the probing scientific mind mark him as an extraordinary thinker. When he retired from his Philadelphia print shop as a prominent, and sometimes contentious, citizen, he moved to a bigger arena, finally becoming Postmaster General for the colonies. And along the way, he discovered some remarkable things about electricity.

The book took off for me about a third of the way through, when we began to see Franklin at the center of ferment in the colonies.

Franklin spent many years, on two occasions, in England as an agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly. The Assembly was particularly hampered by the fact that Pennsylvania was still a proprietary colony, in the hands of the Penn family. While the founder, William Penn, was regarded as admirable, his sons were more contrary, denying the Assembly the kinds of decision-making power that Franklin hoped for. He had begun moving even as a young man toward the notion that the colonists – British subjects – should have some kind of parliamentary power. He also was interested early on in a high level of cooperation among the separate colonies. As Postmaster General, he had come to appreciate the value of some amount of unity.

But he was no separatist. He was loyal to the crown, hoping for Pennsylvania to receive a royal charter like those of other colonies. He hoped also for a personal grant of Ohio land. The crown (and Parliament) were deaf to those pleas. They were equally deaf to warnings that Britain’s stringent rules were leading to disaffected colonists. Although Franklin was instrumental in helping to repeal the Stamp Act, he failed in other areas. He particularly hoped for permission for colonists to manufacture goods; they were not allowed to weave their own cloth, for example. He was still in England when the infamous Tea Party occurred. Franklin was somewhat dismayed by this action, seen from the other side of the Atlantic. He may not have liked the elites, but he also had no liking for the rabble.

While he became a political pariah in England, the renowned Mr. Franklin enjoyed the company of very influential thinkers and scientists, such as the philosopher David Hume and the scientist Joseph Priestley – a veritable who’s who of the 18th century.

So there he was, loving his life in England, enjoying the company of great men and adoring women, not eager to return to Philadelphia, and hoping for Britain to recognize colonial rights. But his efforts to speak on behalf of the colonies made him less and less acceptable to critical members of the British government. The Continental Congress had formed. With great sadness, he boarded a ship for Philadelphia. It was fascinating to observe his turmoil, wanting more respect for the colonies, yet wanting to be part of the kingdom. His transformation from loyal subject to rebellious colonist must have been mirrored in many other people in those years.

Probably I tuned in more vigorously for these events because they are so much a part of our national consciousness.

Franklin’s stint in Paris was probably his greatest triumph. He was sent there to enlist French aid in the form of money as well as fighting forces. His success stamps him in history as one of America’s greatest diplomats. After he left Paris and returned to Philadelphia, he carried his skills at diplomacy and compromise into the Constitutional Convention. As an elder statesman, he brought gravitas to the proceedings and a willingness to compromise. While he was not a principal source of many ideas, his sage presence was critical to its conclusion.

Franklin’s relationships with his family members are both mystifying and disheartening. His common-law wife, Deborah, never was willing to travel and would not leave Philadelphia to join him in England. When she had a stroke, followed by five years of poor health, Franklin did not return to Philadelphia, even when he was advised that she did not have long to live. His son William, who defied him by remaining a royalist and ultimately fleeing to London, sought a reconciliation after the conflict ended. Franklin was having none of it, and he managed to assure that William would be impoverished. He was warmer to his grandchildren, especially the rather feckless Temple Franklin, but he could be dismissive of their needs when he had other priorities. Those priorities sometimes included a retinue of devoted women, bright and attractive ones who could claim his attention if not his bed.

I fear that in Franklin we have another extraordinary man with a tin ear for other people’s needs.

The concluding chapter is the most interesting of the book. It was very satisfying to have the author’s thoughtful summing-up of Franklin’s reputation, which has waxed and waned in the years since he lived. He comes close to being a cipher for whatever age you happen to live in. He was the 18th-century embodiment of The Enlightenment in the New World, but as 19th-century thought evolved to a more romantic view of the world, he struck many as soulless. John Keats said he was not “a sublime man,” but was full of “mean and thrifty maxims.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Franklin’s man “is a frugal, inoffensive, thrifty citizen, but savors of nothing heroic.” All these dismissive comments seem to confuse Franklin with Poor Richard, the alter ego of the Almanac who was the source of Franklin’s homely wisdom. In a reversal of those negative 19th-century attitudes, all the modern self-help books seem to draw inspiration from Poor Richard and from Franklin’s Autobiography. It’s a dubious legacy.

More importantly, Isaacson noted in a poetic summation…
He devised legislatures and lightning rods, lotteries and lending libraries. He sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt. He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances. He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation’s federal compromise.
Profile Image for Margaretann.
15 reviews3 followers
August 13, 2008
Went to the King Tut exhibit in 2007 and was equally impressed by the Ben Franklin museum - where the exhibit was shown in PA. Loved this book; learned so much - maybe I'm a nerd but it was a page turner that I looked forward to each day!
Profile Image for Celia.
1,140 reviews140 followers
October 31, 2022
I'm disappointed that this was an abridged edition. But what was included was so good that I am now compelled to read the hardcover as well.

Benjamin Franklin is much more than the kindly, almost bumbling looking elder statesman. He was a deep thinker and I have felt benefitted by learning his approach to life. He was a practical man and his 13 virtues on how to live life show that.

I am including them here:

Thirteen Virtues According to Benjamin Franklin

1. Temperance
2. Silence
3. Order
4. Resolution
5. Frugality
6. Industry
7. Sincerity
8. Justice
9. Moderation
10. Cleanliness
11. Tranquility
12. Chastity
13. Humility

I will leave it to you to read or listen to the book to find out more!!
Profile Image for Ahn Mur.
126 reviews
November 1, 2017
This took a while. Not that the two have a whole lot in common, but the sheer size of it reminded me of War and Peace; it felt like it was too long until after I finished it, wherein I could appreciate that the length itself was a necessary medium for expressing the shocking length of Franklin's life. Though 85 is not altogether abnormally old, Franklin's life was subjectively twice that, full and productive as it was.
The final chapter was especially important in conveying the overall takeaways of Franklin's life. I actually wish I'd read the last chapter first, then read the book, then read the last chapter again. In it, Isaacson presents a number of viewpoints on Franklin and the interpretation of his life, embedded in a commentary on Franklin's role in the history and identity of the US, something that I (as a Canadian) found incredible and fascinating.
That being said, I still found much of this book to be quite dry.
Isaacson dropped nuggets of amusement throughout (ex. the antics of Captain Luke Ryan, pillaging and apologizing and so on) which were charming and humanizing... But could've been woven into the narrative with more finesse.
Isaacson also devoted much of the book to recounting--in great detail--Franklin's MANY flirt-tationships. I'm not sure if this was one of my favourite things about the book or one of the most frustrating things about the book. I wanted to know more about his scientific endeavours, and yet, I now know too much about how he played chess in the bathroom of Madame Brillon while she languished in the tub...
Profile Image for Jimmy.
Author 5 books198 followers
February 6, 2017
An abridged audio tape. America was so lucky to have men like Benjamin Franklin to start us off. I read his Autobiography as a high school student, and it inspired me to be a better person. I may read it again now.

When I look at today's "conservative" movement, I am ashamed of it. It is truly a disgrace to our country. They could do well to study the lives of men like Franklin who worked hard to better himself but also to help others. He believed in good governance, in helping the poor, and--Oh the horror!--in science.
Profile Image for Maćkowy .
274 reviews65 followers
August 30, 2020
Benjamin Franklin - oświecony drukarz

Co trzeba zrobić, żeby Walter Isaacson, najbardziej ceniony i najpopularniejszy obecnie biograf, zainteresował się twoim życiem? To bardzo proste: wystarczy być drukarzem, dziennikarzem opiniotwórczym, genialnym naukowcem i wynalazcą, a także w wieku emerytalnym zostać posłem i lobbystą, ojcem założycielem Stanów Zjednoczonych chadzającym na bale do Marii Antoniny w czapce z kuniego futra, do tego żyć w ciekawych czasach, czyli po prostu musisz być Benjaminem Franklinem.

Pierwsze co rzuciło mi się w oczy, gdy kartkowałem książkę przed lekturą, to niezwykle rozbudowana bibliografia. Dobre 80 stron z 650, to właśnie spis źródeł: publikacji, materiałów wykorzystanych przez Isaacsona przy jej pisaniu, ilustracji i tak dalej. Ucieszyło mnie to przynajmniej tak, jak Franklina podpisanie Deklaracji Niepodległości, bo solidne źródła to dla mnie podstawa w tego typu pozycjach i zwiastują porządnie wykonaną robotę reasercherską, w której zresztą autorowi pomagało bardzo wiele kompetentnych osób, o czym świadczą podziękowania dla naukowców i badaczy zarówno życia i losów samego Franklina, jak jego epoki, także już na wstępie plus za solidność.
Również wydanie książki można określić jako solidne. Co prawda oprawiona jest w miękką okładkę ze skrzydełkami, ale za to edytorsko i graficznie stoi na bardzo wysokim poziomie i miło mi się z dziełem Isaacsona obcowało. Jeśli miałbym się do czegoś przyczepić, to po pierwsze: wspomniana wyżej miękka okładka (nie byłby to dla mnie problem, gdyby na rynku było wydanie w twardej oprawie, i potencjalny nabywca miałby wybór, ale nie ma) i druga wada, poważniejsza i irytująca mnie jak oświecenie romantyków, to przypisy umieszczone na końcu książki, nie bezpośrednio pod tekstem. Jest to niezmiernie frustrujące, bo przypisów i rozdziałów jest we "Franklinie" dużo (rozdziałów jest 18) i każdorazowe wertowanie tej cegły wybijało mnie z czytelniczego rytmu, a czytać przypisy u Isaacsona warto, bo zawierają dużo ciekawych informacji. Swoją drogą wiem, że w piekle jest osobny krąg dla ludzi, którzy umieszczają przypisy na książki, także strzeżcie się!

Przejdźmy jednak do tego co najważniejsze, czyli do samego tekstu. Jak pisałem wyżej, książka podzielona jest na osiemnaście rozdziałów, ułożonych chronologicznie. Każdy książkowy rozdział to też nowy rozdział w życiu Franklina, czasami powodowany sprawami osobistym, czasami zawodowym, do tego Isaacson daje czytelnikowi szerszy kontekst historyczno-społeczno-obyczajowy, przekładając na "obecne czasy" opisywane wydarzenia. Muszę przyznać, że przyjęta przez autora metoda - prosta i elegancja - świetnie się sprawdza przy tak bogatym i żywotnym bohaterze jak Franklin, bo często zdarza się, że duża ilość materiałów i rzetelność w ich wykorzystywaniu, ostatecznie czyni z książki, może i dzieło jest wartościowe dla badacza, ale dla zwykłego czytelnika wiejące nudą i przytłaczające: datami, nazwiskami etc..
We "Franklinie" tak nie jest. Isaacson pisze prosto i celnie, czasami dowcipnie, co sprawia, że wykreowany przez niego obraz bohatera, jest wielowymiarowy, tak pod względem prywatnym, uczuciowym jak i zawodowym, czy politycznym.
Isaacson nie ucieka również od kontrowersji, a postać Franklina wzbudzała i wciąż wzbudza ich naprawdę sporo, przy czym Isaacson nie ukrywa swojego pozytywnego stosunku do niego i do roli, jaką Franklin odegrał w historii, tak więc ostatecznie dostajemy biografię wyczerpującą, ale nie nudną, napisaną w pozytywnym tonie, ale nie pomijającą "ciemnych stron i szarości".

Kiedy więc następnym razem ktoś zapyta mnie: "Hej nie czytałeś ostatnio jakiejś dobrej biografii" z całą pewnością i z intencjami czystymi, jak sumienie purytanina polecę mu "Benjamina Franklina", a samego Waltera Isaacsona dodaję do listy autorów godnych uwagi.

Za książkę serdecznie dziękuję klubowi recenzenta portalu nakanapie.pl - to była naprawdę świetna lektura.
177 reviews5 followers
March 19, 2018
I can't continue with this. Franklin himself is fascinating, but the author is entirely too enamored and uncritical. He also repeats himself over and over - to the point of repeating laudatory quotes about Frankin from other writers.

Meanwhile, on less flattering fronts - like Franklin's initial attitudes toward slavery - he is quite brief and succinct, abandoning the minute detail with which he approaches Franklin's more admirable qualities.

The author is also overly taken with Franklin as an avatar of what he refers to repeatedly as "the American character" - a character the author defines as a thoroughly commendable (in the author's estimation) adherence to the notion that doing good and getting rich (or at least very comfortably prosperous) go hand in hand.

The final straw was at around 160 or so pages - a simpering account of Frankin's first extended "flirtation" in saccharine terms that are absolutely cringe-worthy. He flatly declares that these "romantic" episodes were "probably never consummated" without even a footnote to explain this assertion.

No. Just no. I would like to read more about Franklin, but not from this author. I would like to read a biography, not a hagiography.
458 reviews391 followers
March 29, 2017
I had a problem paying attention to history in high school, and even in college. I did passably well and forgot 90% of what I learned. I was way more focused on biology and astronomy and thought history was boring. As a result, whenever history comes up in conversation I feel way out of the loop and it's a tad embarrassing.

I've been trying to rectify this by reading biographies and I thought it would be like pulling teeth, but it's been delightfully entertaining - I was not expecting that.

This book was written as though the author actually knew Ben Franklin, there's a bibliography in the back of the book that's around 60 pages long, it's extraordinarily well researched!

It was written in a tone like he was Franklins best friend, and is telling us stories and tidbits from his life not just a list of accomplishments and dates. It actually sounded *almost* like a narrative. I loved this part of it, it actually made a biography hard to put down, which I didn't know was a thing.

I learned stuff right off the bat from the first page, and this guy lead one of the most interesting lives I've ever heard of. If he were a fictional character people would say he was written over the top and not believable.

What I remembered from him in high school was he was an eccentric inventor who was also a politician, I didn't realize how he almost single handedly developed the city of Philadelphia. He arrived there when the city had ~2,000 people living in it, without paved roads. He developed the school system and the tax system to pay for it - as well as helped out with the first school for black children. He practically invented the police department, taking it from a gang of paid thugs to a tax paid civil service - he did the thing for the fire dept, postal service, and militia. He went from being a Loyalist to King George to an outspoken Rebel who helped develop the Declaration of independence. I mean, there's about 10001 things I'm leaving off this list too, he dabbled with electricity and developed the lightning rod (which was a big deal back then), and helped develop paper currency.

What I really loved about the author, though, is that he didn't glance over the negative aspects of Franklin. He had a very hard time maintaining personal and intimate relationships even with his own family. He really did not treat his brother, John, all that well, nor his son William - and his wife died alone. He did own slaves to begin with, and argued that America should be more white. However, later on in life after working with the school for black children he had a change of heart and became an outspoken abolitionist ~100 years before they would be set free.

Holy wow, this guys life was something else.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,095 reviews1,131 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned'
March 25, 2020
My apologies to the unknown library patron whom I forced to return this book so that I could check it out, right before the libraries shut down indefinitely. If I'd known, you could have kept it.

First, this book is long and surprisingly dull for a popular biography. Second, as of page 92, where I finally decided to quit, there was remarkably little historical detail - it focuses in on the biographical aspects to the point that it's almost divorced from history, unusual for a biography of someone who lived more than 200 years ago. Third, it is chock-full of repetitive adoration of Franklin: barely a page passes without our being told that he was pragmatic and that whatever he's doing at the moment illustrates his pragmatic character. Or earnest, canny, frugal, etc. etc. This is especially jarring given that much of the behavior described isn't actually admirable: driving another newspaper editor out of business to clear the field to launch his own paper; writing anonymous letters to his own paper criticizing his competitors and praising himself, including for his restraint in not criticizing his competitors; allowing his wife to be openly nasty to his son, her stepson; and publishing a piece a few weeks after his marriage about how wives need to serve their husbands in everything and "deny yourself the trivial satisfaction of your own will," among many similarly unfortunate exhortations. Isaacson treats all this material uncritically, and I don't have much use for biographies that can't take an honest and balanced look at their subject, however widely loved that person might be. But Isaacson seems too enamored of Franklin's self-improvement schemes, all discussed in great detail, to do so.

At any rate, there are plenty of Franklin biographies out there and I can't say I have much use for this one. If only the library would take it back!
Profile Image for Grumpus.
498 reviews240 followers
July 22, 2019
The grumpus23 (23-word commentary)
Remarkable life. Genius. A great patriot on one hand but an unsympathetic family man. Good book, but not my favorite Walter Isaacson biography.
Profile Image for Joe.
283 reviews8 followers
May 2, 2012
Isaacson is getting a lot of attention and reading right now for his Steve Jobs biography and there is some symmetry in his biography of Franklin, surely the Steve Jobs of his day, (a comparison favorable to Jobs, for sure.)

Isaacson does a great job in placing Franklin in his startling historical context. Ben Franklin is old! He is so old when he was born we even reckoned time by a different calendar - the Julian instead of the Gregorian. He was a contemporary of such old-timey Puritan giants as Cotton and Increase Mather! The Salem Witch Trials had occurred a mere 14 years before his birth. (Witchburning as as recent past for him almost what Beatlemania was for me...) The America in which he came of age was a truly different place than what it was for men like Washington and Adams. Thomas Jefferson was young enough to have been his grandson!

Isaacson does a great job in bringing this almost exotic American to life and enumerates his many unique accomplishments and contributions to American and world culture. I cannot do justice to it here, but Isaacson explains how many of Franklin's scientific accomplishments (he coined the term "battery" for electrical storage and also came up with "positive" and "negative" charges as concepts) remain impressive and even crucial to today's scientific understandings.

Isaacson also demystifies much of the lore of Ben Franklin's sexual reputations: he was no saint, but nowhere near the libertine his enemies made him out to be. His advance age and serious gout would have kept him from the kind of shenanigans he is famous for in France.

Isaacson also give space to Franklin's constantly evolving spiritual understanding. He was certainly no orthodox Christian by any understanding, but neither did he die as the Deist he was famous for being in his younger days.

Isaacson concludes with a gripping essay on Franklin's importance to American and even world history. There are perhaps none as versatile and as wide accomplished as Franklin in the annals of any nation.
Profile Image for Chantal.
53 reviews
August 23, 2008
This book gave me a much broader perspective on Benjamin Franklin. I had read his autobiography in junior high and loved it. I determined that he was the genre of person I would have enjoyed as a friend. The man thinks like me in many respects. I adopted some of his ideas because they fit me.

While I admired him, this book painted a more thorough picture of who he was, flaws and all. Now that I am an adult, it seemed appropriate to see the fuller picture of this character I thought so highly of. I discovered he was a words of affirmation guy. He loved a good practical joke. He was witty, but struggled with humility and often tried to feign humility. There are, I discovered, aspects of him that would drive me crazy, and even ones that I would never respect.

The book also explained little connections to my New England roots that I enjoyed learning about. It inadvertently revealed how I am related to Benjamin, which was so exciting to me. My overall first take home point was: Benjamin Franklin was human, just like the rest of us. But secondly, it made me realize that it is often human nature to put on a pedestal people who do great things, but great things really are accomplished by human beings, flaws and all.
Profile Image for Brian Willis.
569 reviews29 followers
August 11, 2016
Readers searching for a readable, engaging, and page turning account of the least patrician of the Founding Fathers can search here for a very fun read through the life of Franklin. Filled with his aphorisms and wisdom, but never glossing past his failings (his family life was very complicated to say the least), this book covers all of the great accomplishments: his publications, his entrepreneurship, his innovations, his diplomacy, his statesmanship, and finally his hidden hand behind many of the important phrases and structures in American government. Detailed without being exhausting, I would recommend this book highly to readers of early American history and Franklin in particular.
Profile Image for Rahni.
424 reviews13 followers
May 5, 2020
So, it's kind of* a funny story.

I had just finished Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin , and at the end was the recommendation to follow it up with Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Well, sure, I thought equably, Now's as good a time as ever. Who knows when my interests, time, and chance may align again?

You see, my friend, Amber, had chosen Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin as our May 2020's Book Club selection, and I--true to form--had procrastinated cracking the spine of said tome. Though I did a pretty great job in obtaining the book (way back in November, thank you very much), which is a good first step.

(Just to remind myself of the context of my life at a later date--the COVID-19 pandemic is a few months old at this point in world history. Alaskan students haven't been in school in nearly two months, everyone is baking bread, the world economy seems to be on the verge of collapse . . . but we are intrepid book club members! We meet by Zoom videoconference these days. Good times.)

Anyhow, I read the first page of the preface of my book club book about six days out from the meeting and found it delightful. (Which kind of surprised me because my initial reaction to the title was, "Who? Wait, why would I care?") Yet even then, I knew that it would be unlikely for me to sit down, undistracted** by quilting (my new love), undistracted by other books I'm reading (my enduring love), undistracted by my obligations, my work, my animals, my various projects, etc., and make it through the many, many pages of that book in time for our meeting. So I gave in and added the audiobook to my Audible account.

After a day of yardwork (Saturday), and a three-hour (Sunday) walk with my dog, Cooper, I motored on through that audiobook at a swift 1.7x speed and polished it off this lovely (Monday) morning. Being a somewhat cheap person, however, I turned to my library's collection for the Ben Franklin biography I was in search of. Bingo! What luck! They had it, and--even better--there wasn't a wait for it. I could have immediate gratification to my founding father whim.

Jill Lepore's Book of Ages sets quite a backstory to the Franklins, beginning with their lineage in the 1500's, and examining their childhood with care. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life . . . didn't. I was a little surprised, in fact, about how quickly his childhood was covered. After all, shortly after starting Ben's bio, I toggled over to Audible.com to find out how many hours I would be engrossed with early America, only to discover that I had unwittingly signed up to listen for 24 hours about Mr. Franklin's life.

And then, actually, I was even more surprised about the pacing choices of the author. I mean, I was listening at credibly breezy speed, but still--save a little for the end, buddy Mr. Isaacson.

Which is all just a really long way of saying that--whoops! Didn't know I had borrowed an abridged version of the book. A mere 7 hours (well, 4 hours on 1.75x speed).

So . . . if anyone ever asks me if I've read Walter Isaacson's splendid biography? I'm torn. Kind of?

Did I enjoy it?

Will I now read the entire (unabridged) book?
Ummmmmmm . . . the multiverse exists for a reason.

There's always a chance.

*I said "it's kind of a funny story" not "it's a rip-roaring hilarious story." It's really too long for the first kind of review, but at least I posted a warning to lower your expectations, right? That's fair.
**So, my computer doesn't seem to think "undistracted" is a valid word. I protest! And will not substitute it. (Though I admit I am actively trying not to think about what the correct word is because once I light upon it, I'll likely give in and change it. Not a hill to die on, certainly, but I'm standing firm, nonetheless.)

P.S. Follow-up: I actually immediately turned to John Quincy Adams from my Audible library, so at least I'm staying with that time period. Gettin' eddicated 'bout 'Merica's youth 'n all.
293 reviews1 follower
August 31, 2021
This book has been on my shelf for many years and I have tried to read it at least 3x. I have been reading a lot of biographies this summer and thought that finally I would tackle it one more time. I persisted and did finish. I like Walter Isaacson and Franklin is certainly an interesting chap but for some reason this book and his life are either overwhelming or boring. There was no great romance. His marriage to Deborah was more of a convenience. He flirted heavily with younger women especially in his old age but it wasn't something to capture the imagination. He was a good guy and did a lot of science which would have made him famous anyway but he also was there to help form the United States and so much of what became American culture. He was always the old guy lurking on the sidelines of the founding fathers and I don't even think showed up in Hamilton the musical. But he contributed so much to all of that and yet I don't ever see a hip hop musical about him.

Is learning about his life important? Yes. I did get a clearer picture of all that he contributed. He started out as an apprentice in a print shop and did make a living as a printer. He claimed to be a "leather apron" which I assume in Colonial Times was the equivalent of a blue collar worker. He remained true to the tradesmen and regular middle class folks. In France he didn't even wear the powdered wigs that everyone else did to be fashionable. But he did dine with the King and was respected by royalty and scientists.

Something I didn't realize: "Since the 1750's he had been instrumental in shaping every major document that led to the creation of the new republic. He was the only person to sign all four of its founding papers: the Declaration of Independence, the treaty with France, the peace accord with Britain and the Constitution."

"He devised legislatures and lightning rods, lotteries and lending libraries. He sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt. He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances. He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation's federal compromise. He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants."

"Indeed the roots of much of what distinguishes this nation can be found in Franklin: its cracker-barrel humor and wisdom; its technological ingenuity; its pluralistic tolerance; its ability to weave together individualism and community cooperation; its philosophical pragmatism; its celebration of meritocratic mobility; the idealistic streak ingrained in its foreign policy; and the Main Street (or Market Street) virtues that serve as the foundation for its civic values. He was egalitarian in what became the American sense: he approved of individuals making their wealth through diligence and talent, but opposed giving special privilege to people based on their birth."

"His support for religion tended to be based on his belief that it was useful and practical in making people behave better, rather than because it was divinely inspired." He supported all churches and beliefs but didn't belong to any. In recently reading that Harvard has an atheist chaplain, I thought of Franklin. The atheist chaplain Epstein has a book GOOD WITHOUT GOD which was Franklin and yet he worried that without religion people would have no morals.

"He embodied a spirit of Enlightenment tolerance and pragmatic compromise." "A stand for compromise is not the stuff of heroism, virtue or moral certainty. But it is the essence of the democratic process." "Though averse to rabble rule, he favored direct elections, trusted the average citizen and resisted anything resembling elitism." We were lucky to have the old man around when the country was being formed.
Profile Image for Dan.
30 reviews34 followers
January 26, 2008
I enjoy providing background in my reviews of how I’ve acquired or read a book, because I believe it helps to paint a picture of my tastes, desires, and it might even give you more information about me. In other words, maybe the books I read act as my own autobiography. I bought this highly anticipated book only a short time after getting a new job as a store manager with FranklinCovey. Having made good friends with the store manager of the Waldenbooks store down the hall from my old store, I spent a fair amount of time in her store. I would learn about new and hot books, as well as best sellers as events unfolded.

Four elements, therefore, led me to this book. FranklinCovey, at that time my new employer, was formed by Hyrum Smith and Stephen Covey. Both men have been leaders in business thought and self-improvement fields and both credit their philosophies, in large part, to the “Moral Improvement” project that Ben Franklin crafted to focus his own life. I was attracted to the book, first, because of my new company and their principles and philosophies.

Second, I am a fan, if not a well read one, of American history. To me, the founding of our country is the ultimate action story. Winning our independence was so improbable and so hard fought, that it made for great theater and epic stories of adventure and heroism.

Third, I try to read as much nonfiction as possible. The older I get, the more I come to understand that it’s a total imperative to learn about the world in which I live. I also see that there is more out there in this world that I don’t know, than the sum of what I do know.

Lastly, spending time on my lunch breaks, browsing books down at Waldenbooks meant I saw books before most people could. When the first copies of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life arrived, I couldn’t resist the temptation to pick up a copy.

Despite my intentions, though, it sat on my bookshelf, untouched for years. It’s an imposingly thick book and I could never seem to find the time. Flash forward three years and to a different FranklinCovey store; my staff was comprised of avid readers. In down times, they were commonly seen to pull out a book. Since they were diligent about hiding their books when a customer would walk in, there was no reason for me to deny them the freedom to read.

It dawned on me that there were many books on my shelf, begging to be read. I always complained about a lack of free time to read; yet I usually had at least half an hour or more of free time every day. If my staff could pull out a book, why couldn’t I? With that in mind, I brought in the book I’d bought three years earlier.

After having read and reviewed “Ernie Pyle’s War” last year and having reconsidered my earlier opinion, it occurred to me that reviewing a biography didn’t necessarily involve reviewing a human life. Instead, my reviews, I hope, are a reflection of how I’ve perceived how the book’s author has presented that human life. With that in mind, Walter Isaacson, former CEO of CNN, paints a loving and admiring, as well as a fair view of the life of a truly epic founding father.

This book, by and large, is a chronological history of the life of a man who accomplished more than entire branches of many family’s trees. Mr. Isaacson crafts an unmistakably clear depiction of the growth and maturation, as well as the mental and emotion development of this founding father, showing how Ben Franklin’s experiences as a youth and young professional would affect his opinions and roles as a reluctant revolutionary.

Ben was born almost three hundred years ago, as I write this, to a typically large family. Without writing a mini version of a great biography, along the way, we travel the world with Ben as he debates philosophy of the common man as a publisher, steals inspiration from future generations as an inventor and scientist, and ultimately acts as the greatest diplomat that America and maybe the world, has ever seen. That statement would be hard to classify as hyperbole.

Ben’s story, as presented by Mr. Isaacson, is almost too fantastic and too seemingly superhuman to have happened, but the biography is supremely detailed and referenced up one side of the book’s 500+ page length, and down the other.

The book, to be fair, is written on such a high reading level, that it wouldn’t be considered as a quick read by a person with less than an advanced postgraduate degree. Most readers of my reviews almost certainly know that I fall south of that mark, so this book took me much of a year to get through, after fits and starts of reading passages as time allowed. I should have known I was up against a seriously toned book when I learned that Supreme Court Justice Stevens was listening to this book as a book on audio. At least my reading list puts me in the highest company!

Mr. Isaacson suggests that Benjamin Franklin’s philosophy matches him to no current major political ideology. Ben was way too complex of thought, but pure of philosophy than either of the two major political parties today would encourage. As a decided partisan myself, I find this a particularly refreshing discovery about the man who both invented bifocal glasses and mediated the constitutional congress of 1787 (and so much more, to be fair). This biography also frames Benjamin Franklin as a very, very likeable, but not perfect man. Mr. Isaacson resorts to none of the fan-boy tactics that many biographers might be inclined to use. He displays Ben’s greatness as well as his foibles and warts, so that the reader is free to bring their own judgments to the events of Franklin’s life.

This book is a solid, enjoyable overview of a man who can be described as one of the first truly great Americans. If the style and presentation of this tome had been directed towards a lesser figure, it might have been an even more difficult read, but no fair, complete, and accurate telling of the life of Benjamin Franklin would allow for any such boredom or indifference. The greatness of the book’s subject raises my grade of this book by a single star.
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September 27, 2012
Another view reminding us that all people are human with both strengths and weaknesses. I find it exceedingly interesting that some people succeed regardless of their faults, and others of us let our faults dominate. (Now, Discover Your Strengths)

Here are a few things that caught my attention as I read this book.

"Franklin later concluded that the loss of money he was owed was balanced by the loss of the burden of having Ralph as a friend. A pattern was emerging. ... Franklin easily made casual friends, intellectual companions, useful patrons, flirty admirers, and circles of genial acquaintances, but he was less good at nurturing lasting bonds that involved deep personal commitments or emotional relationships, even within his own family. (Page 44)

"When an Indian child has been brought among us,taught our language and habituated to our customers, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them , there is no persuading him ever to return." (Page 153)

One Parisian, who added the perfect French complement about his love of silence: "He knew how to be impolite without being rude." (Page 328)

"Franklin had won, … The greatest diplomatic victory the United States has ever achieved."… [That] partially points out the paucity of American successes over the years at bargaining tables," (Page 349)

He was a sociable man who liked clubs that offered enlightening conversations and activities, but the friendships he formed with his fellow men were more affable than intimate. He had a genial affection for his wife, but not enough love to prevent him from spending 15 of the last 17 years of their marriage an ocean away… With his many women admirers, he preferred flirting rather than making serious commitments, and he retreated into playful detachment at any sign of danger. (Page 487)

I found it interesting that his years in England was portrayed as politically unsuccessful, but in France he was eminently successful at winning the hearts of the country and negotiating agreements and treaties both with France and with England.

Chapter 18 describes shifting opinions of America regarding Franklin over the decades. Some decades he is in favor and some decades he is out of favor. This chapter reminds me that an assessment of a historical character is continually shifting. The current values of the society determine who they hold in esteem and who they scorn.
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