Tag along on this New York Times bestselling “witty, entertaining romp” (The New York Times Book Review) as Eric Winer travels the world, from Athens to Silicon Valley—and back through history, too—to show how creative genius flourishes in specific places at specific times.
In this “intellectual odyssey, traveler’s diary, and comic novel all rolled into one” (Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness), acclaimed travel writer Weiner sets out to examine the connection between our surroundings and our most innovative ideas. A “superb travel guide: funny, knowledgeable, and self-deprecating” (The Washington Post), he explores the history of places like Vienna of 1900, Renaissance Florence, ancient Athens, Song Dynasty Hangzhou, and Silicon Valley to show how certain urban settings are conducive to ingenuity. With his trademark insightful humor, this “big-hearted humanist” (The Wall Street Journal) walks the same paths as the geniuses who flourished in these settings to see if the spirit of what inspired figures like Socrates, Michelangelo, and Leonardo remains. In these places, Weiner asks, “What was in the air, and can we bottle it?”
“Fun and thought provoking” (Miami Herald), The Geography of Genius reevaluates the importance of culture in nurturing creativity and “offers a practical map for how we can all become a bit more inventive” (Adam Grant, author of Originals).
Eric Weiner is best-selling author of such books as THE GEOGRAPHY OF BLISS, THE GEOGRAPHY OF GENIUS and the just-released THE SOCRATES EXPRESS.
His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. A number of high schools and universities have incorporated them into their curricula. Weiner is the recipient of the Borders Original Voices Award, and a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award.
As a long-time foreign correspondent for NPR, Eric reported from more than 30 nations, from Iraq to Indonesia, covering some of the major international events of recent times.
The Wall Street Journal said of Eric: "There are some writers whose company is worth keeping, whatever the subject… And Mr. Weiner is blessed with this gift. He is a prober and questioner, a big-hearted humanist..."
Eric is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and AFAR magazine. His work also appears in The Los Angeles Times, and other publications, as well as on the BBC and NPR’s Morning Edition. He is a popular speaker and lecturer.
When not writing, or thinking about writing, Eric is an avid cyclist and consumer of sushi (Tekka maki, in particular). He lives in in the Washington, DC area, with his wife and daughter and a menageries of rambunctious animals.
Eric Weiner has written a wonderful book about how and why golden ages of genius creativity sprout up at different places and times around the world. He has chosen half a dozen golden ages, where there was a critical mass of genius creativity in diverse fields. The working definition of creativity is the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable. Genius is not genetic. It clusters in certain places and times.
For Classical Athens, the culture became creative due to its openness to foreigners and foreign ideas. Once Athenians saw that their culture was arbitrary, they became more open to ideas from other cultures. The golden age of Athens occurred after the Persians burned the city to the ground. The total disruption of the social order helped to produce a new environment where creativity could thrive. Interestingly, Athens sometimes voted people out of the city for arrogance, or for being "too good", or for flimsy arguments. Rejection itself could lead to greater creativity.
Interestingly, Weiner also remarks that today, the Renaissance man is dead because we killed him. College campuses and corporate offices require a degree of specialization that continue to kill him.
Hangzhou flourished in art, poetry, and technology in China from 969 to 1276. A vast array of technologies were developed, including gunpowder, toilet paper, clocks, compass, textiles, porcelain, paper money, large sailing ships, hydraulic machines, woodblock printing, as well as sciences such as astronomy, archaeology, and medicine. The Song Dynasty was China's Renaissance, and Hangzhou was its Florence. Enlightened leaders established an Imperial Palace library with 80,000 scrolls.
So, the question arises, why does modern Chinese culture squelch creativity? Probably, it was the allegiance to tradition. There is a Chinese expression; The first bird to fly is the one who gets shot. Chinese are less concerned with novelty, and more with usefulness. In Western thought, In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. In Chinese tradition, The universe has no beginning, and there is no creator. The author met with Jack May, the billionaire founder of alibaba. May contends that today, Chinese creativity is squelched by the education system--specifically the mind-numbing exams. It's not the exams per se, or the material covered, but the coercion involved. And, he gives another reason; China has lost its religion. May says that religious teachings contain inspirational ideas that have very practical applications. However, Chinese creativity will reawaken through the Internet.
Florence had a golden age, largely because of the gold Florin, the first international currency. The Medicis were the greatest bankers, and most inspiring patrons. They had more money than god, and they understood art. Weiner writes that patronage in the arts was propelled by guilt; those who were weathy felt some guilt, when comparing their situations with that of others. How money is made also makes a difference. Innovation is absent in resource-rich nations. Florence had no natural resources, and had no standing armies. It used its wealth to pay tribute to its enemies, and had to innovate to maintain its standard of living.
Pope Julius II chose Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling by adhering to the Medici philosophy of patronage: "Choose womeone who is talented, but give him an impossible task for which he seems like a bad fit." This is the exact opposite from the selection of job applicants today.
Geniuses produce many worthless works, but only the masterpieces are shown and celebrated. The more shots you get at a target, the more likely you'll eventually score a bull's-eye, but the more misses you'll accrue as well. Weiner writes, half-jokingly I assume, that the world needs a "Museum of Crap", or a "Museum of Mistakes". Wealth gives you a chance to take risks, and gives you do-overs.
It was not a coincidence that the Renaissance in Florence occurred two generations after the outbreak of bubonic plague. The plague produced instability in the social order. Merchants put their money into culture. Humanists replaced the most pious priests of the church. This is similar to the golden age of Athens, which occurred after enormous upheaval.
Edinburgh's golden age lasted about 60 years, but in that time it "ruled the Western intellect." Edinburgh saw the invention of the modern calendar, the encyclopedia, the flushing toilet, refrigerator, bicycle, the iron swing plow, hypodermic needle, and anesthesia. It saw major advances in medicine and in medical education.
I just loved Weiner's description of the reflexive pessimism that he saw in Edinburgh. He overheard this conversation: "Nice day." "Yes, and we'll pay for it!" The Scots are "scrappy"--resourceful, determined, creative. The question arises, why does genius grow in small places? Perhaps because "A small nation has to grow big balls."
Weiner finds an interesting view of genius in Edinburgh. "Groupthink" is the opposite of group genius. When smart people get together, how well do they tolerate dissenting views? The more they tolerate, the more good ideas come out--even if the dissenting views are wrong. The mere presence of dissent improves creativity. The Scots are great at "flyting", a ritual verbal humiliation, followed by opposing sides heading to a local pub, with no hard feelings. The battles of ideas are never personal. What makes genius? It is not knowledge or intelligence, but the ability to connect seemingly disparate strands of thought.
Weiner suggests that Calcutta enjoyed a golden age of genius. He mentions Calcutta as the city of Asia's first Nobel Prize winner. He discusses the life of physicist Jagadish Bose, and the great poet Tagore, also a Nobel Prize winner. Calcutta, like in Edinburgh, has institutionalized the "adda", a conversation with no point, but not pointless. It is like a book club, but the subject can be anything.
Vienna had two distinct golden ages. The first, around the late 1700's, early 1800's, focused on music. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert lived in Vienna during this time period. At the time of Mozart, everyone played an instrument. Even the emperor played violin an hour a day. Music was more than entertainment; music vented political sentiments. Mozart wanted broad audience appeal, so he did the same thing that Pixar does in its movies; appeal to kids, and also insert humor for the parents to get. Mozart wrote music that would appeal to connoisseurs and also to those less learned in music. His music operated on multiple levels simultaneously.
Weiner admits that he himself lacks much musical education. He checked into a hotel in Vienna named "Adagio" without realizing that it is a common musical term. He played trombone as a child, which induced complaints from family, neighbors, and the local ASPCA.
The second golden age of Vienna occurred a hundred years later; psychoanalyst Freud, philosopher Wittgenstein, artist Gustav Klimt, physicist Ernst Mach, and composer Gustav Mahler. Weiner attributes the golden age of Vienna to the coffeehouse, a place of conversation, international newspapers, and information. The coffeehouse is for people "who want to be alone, but need companionship for it." (I am reminded of today's coffeehouses, full of people on laptops, each in his own little world.) The moderate noise level allows us to enter a state of distracted, or diffused, focus. It is an ideal state for creative breakthroughs.
Throughout the descriptions of the golden ages, Weiner interleaves general discussions about genius and the forces that shape geniuses. For example, the loss of a parent at a young age seems to be important for mental health and creativity. Eric Weiner writes that the greatest determinant of children's music performance is not the amount of practice, but the degree of long-term commitment to music. Immigrants rank very high in lists of geniuses, as they have diversifying experiences and develop "cognitive flexibility." Nobel laureates in the sciences are more involved in the arts and music than less eminent scientists. Where is genius absent? Nations that are rich in natural resources, especially oil, tend to stagnate culturally and intellectually. Women are also under-represented, because the world wouldn't allow it. Weiner often writes that We get exactly the geniuses that we want and that we deserve.
Schema violiations are important to genius and creativity; these are changes in a pattern of thought. They help to increase cognitive flexibility. Genius begets more genius. Felix Salten, who lived in Vienna, wrote the story "Bambi, a life in the woods." The book inspired the Disney movie. Secretly, Slaten also wrote pornographic novels on the side.
Silicon Valley is the last of the golden ages described in the book. Of course, it is controversial whether or not Silicon Valley should be ranked with the likes of Florence and Athens. The secret to its success is not that it is the best, but that it was the first. "First Starters" like Silicon Valley because they are magnets; creativity is contagious. Simply being in the presence of creative people inspires us to think more creatively.
It is a big myth that people take big risks in Silicon Valley. There are good mechanisms for avoiding consequences of the risks; people work with a net. This is much different from Florence, where if you failed you destroyed yourself and your family for generations. In Silicon Valley, people think that their success is based on ability. Weiner contends that it is not just ability; success is based on opportunity. There is an amazing amount of self-deception here. Places of genius like Silicon Valley are all about creating a critical mass. Preconditions of societal acceptance have to be there. Silicon Valley is not as much a place as a culture, one that required a long gestation period.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I have written an ultra-long review, primarily to remind myself of all of Weiner's insights. I highly recommend this book to everyone interested in creativity.
There are a lot of interesting tidbits and factoids about why genius flowers in specific places and about creativity in general. Unfortunately, they are weighed down by busy-ness where Weiner meets people and drinks copious amounts of caffeine. He could have easily chopped 1/4 of this book out and no one would miss it. I don't care that his guide talks to her French car in German while in Austria, or other such irrelevant details.
The entire last section about Silicon Valley also feels like it's overreaching because it doesn't really make the point of the title's premise. In fact, it does just the opposite by underscoring that people in Silicon Valley don't really create anything, they just repackage existing ideas in order to make money. That's well-done marketing but hardly genius.
By virtue of the the fact this is a book and not an ongoing series of magazine articles, there are numerous places left out of consideration which would more closely align with the premise. The sudden explosion of physicists in Germany at the dawn of the 20th century, for instance. The equally impressive soaring achievements by inventors in Dayton, Ohio, at the same time. Rochester, New York. Cape Town, South Africa. Hollywood, California.
It happens over and over, too. If someone can crack the specific social elements which foster genius, we could have another golden age, a Second Enlightenment.
So far it seems like you need to have constant stimulation with a free flow of ideas and the vigor of new blood coming in. Immigration is key. You also need to have some sort of physical hardship that places limitations on the populace, but not so many limitations that everyone is scrambling to survive. You also need patrons and mentors willing to give genius a place to flourish, but teachers who challenge rather than coddle you.
You have to be safe but not comfortable.
All of the places he talks about -- Athens, Greece; Vienna, Austria; Hangzhou, China; Calcutta, India; Silicon Valley -- all have these things. Immigrants, uncomfortable landscapes, uncertain political times, a support system, etc.
What was really missing from the book is women. He finally addressed this near the end. Mozart's sister was apparently every bit as talented as he was, but was never given a chance. They did, however, name Apricot schnapps after her.
Again and again women were ignored by the powers that be, to our great detriment. They've effectively been erased from history as a result. Watson and Crick could not have had their breakthrough with DNA without Rosalind Franklin. They basically took credit for her work. Actress Hedy Lamarr came up with the basics that make cell phones work but needed to pair with a man in order to get her ideas heard.
I wonder how many geniuses have been marginalized simply because they were women?
Weiner and one of his guides (it might even be the car-talking one) point out this unfairness but he kind of just leaves it lying there. Part of the reason for that is his claim that there are no undiscovered geniuses. You have to be smart but also you have to be marketed. Without the hype, your genius goes unrecognized, so we therefore can't call you a genius.
I don't buy into that at all. History is littered with unrecognized geniuses, just like the two women mentioned above. Ada Lovelace's programming skills on the very first computer, difference engine, went unremarked for nearly 150 years, but she was still a genius. Whoever came up with smelting ore was a nearly unparalleled genius. How many of us would conceive of the idea of digging up rock and putting it into a fire until it melted and then shaping it into a tool? I'm guessing the answer is "none of us." Yet one person did at some point, kicking off the Bronze Age and creating metallurgy. But even then it's doubtful that he did it alone. More likely he built on the work of others.
History is full of geniuses who just missed the cut. Alexander Graham Bell got to the patent office just a few hours before another guy who also invented the telephone. I could find out his name but it's not something many of us know, and most people aren't even aware he existed. Yet he still invented the telephone! He's still a genius. Darwin didn't come up with the concept of evolution on his own. Lots of people had that same idea, and many of them wrote books about it. Darwin is just the most famous one. The other people were also geniuses who saw the same thing in nature.
I guess I just take exception to this redefining of the word.
All that said, Weiner does offer plenty of interesting facts from the studies done on creativity and geniuses, so this book still has something to offer.
Loved Geography of Bliss and was so excited to read Weiner's new geography. This one certainly doesn't disappoint, maybe not genius per se, but definitely pretty awesome. Reading Weiner's books is sort of like having a conversation with an intelligent, well traveled, erudite, funny person...one sided conversation, of course, such is the nature of reading, but nevertheless extremely enjoyable and enlightening. He writes in a very accessible style expertly mixing history, sociology, psychology, travelogue and anthropology (at least those five) into a book that educates without patronizing and entertains consistently throughout. While there may be not set formula for genius, there are certainly patterns to explore, which is precisely what Weiner does, while globe trotting the continents. The chapter on Song Dynasty in China was particularly fascinating. Much was learned from reading this book. At this point it would actually be great if Weiner just started tackling random subjects, start his own series of Geographies. Informational, intelligent and immensely readable, this one is a must for a variety of armchair scholars. Highly recommended.
Genius – some describe as someone with a high IQ, but that is misleading. “Plenty of people with extremely high IQs have accomplished little, and conversely, plenty of people of “average” intelligence have done great things.” In this book the author explores the “genius in the creative sense – as the highest form of creativity.”
Some define creative genius as “someone with the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable.”
“Certain places, at certain times, produced a bumper crops of brilliant minds and good ideas.”
In 1869, Sir Francis Galton concluded that genius was hereditary. In 1873, Alphonse de Candolle argued that it was environment being responsible, and not genes. The author picked six historic places to present Candolle’s theory. Each of those places “represented an apex of human achievement.”
I got very interested and excited by the premise. But not for long. What follows is a painful mess. In short it all comes down to a community that promotes values and creativity. They fell apart simply because of greed. “There is always a rotting from the inside (…)” And it takes over 400 pages to present that. At least half of it should be cut out as it is not related or interesting. It needs clear path and focus.
For example, Athens thrived because they encouraged small interactive community, which with time became big and corrupted. Florence thrived, because it had the greatest patron of arts – Lorenzo de Medici. Vienna was collaboration of artists and audience, audience appreciating genius.
I read Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss” several years and loved it. In that book, he travels the world searching for places of happiness. “The Geography of Genius” follows the same formula. Here he searches for certain places and time periods of genius and innovation. Since I love travelogues, I enjoyed those parts most of all. He visited seven places where a genius golden age has flourished: Athens, Florence, Hangzhou, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and Silicon Valley. I particularly enjoyed the Florence part, since we had just been there.
I enjoy Weiner’s humor and conversational writing style, but all in all, this book wasn’t as compelling as I had hoped. I have to admit that genius doesn’t interest me that much. I think that it’s often overrated and there is more to life than mere genius. Yet it was certainly thought-provoking and led to some interesting conversations with my husband, things that may not interest you and that you may not agree with, but I thought to share anyway. We believe that everything we have is ultimately from God and that the source of all learning is the knowledge of God. We also believe that there are holy spirits and angels that inspire people to know and realize things and/or to create things. All these things are ultimately used for the benefit of mankind. We talked about how these geniuses were inspired by God whether they were aware of it or not, although we believe that most were aware of it. I know that Michelangelo was. The point is that they didn’t come up with all their genius on their own. Sorry for rambling a bit!
My favorite take-home concept: A culture cultivates what it values. It makes me rather depressed about the country that I live in and what it values.
Some of my favorite quotes. Sorry that there are so many. “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.”
“This less-is-more phenomenon holds true not only for individuals but for entire nations. A good example is the “oil curse,” also known as the paradox of plenty. Nations rich in natural resources, especially oil, tend to stagnate culturally and intellectually, as even a brief visit to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait reveals. The citizens of these nations have everything so they create nothing.”
“We are at our most creative when we have something to push against. Creativity does not require perfect conditions. In fact, it thrives in imperfect ones. The block of marble from which Michelangelo carved his masterpiece, the David, had been discarded by other artists. They considered it defective, and they were right. But Michelangelo saw that defect as a challenge, not a disqualifier.”
“For the Greeks, Brady explains, virtue and genius were inseparable. You could be the greatest poet or architect in the world, but no one would consider you so if you were an arrogant jerk. I marvel at how that differs from our modern view of genius. Not only are we willing to overlook character flaws if the character in question produces brilliance, we have come to expect them from our geniuses. Think of Steve Jobs and his famously peevish personality. Only a true genius, we conclude, could get away with that. That’s not how the Greeks saw it. A man was judged not only by the quality of his work but also the content of his character.”
“Great civilizations rise to greatness for different reasons but collapse for essentially the same reason: arrogance. No civilization, no matter how great, is immune to this “creeping vanity,” as professor of education Eugene Von Fange calls it. Here he is describing the decline of classical Athens, but his words could just as easily apply to any golden age that has begun to lose its bloom. “Soon, their sons, coddled in the use of all the great things their fathers and grandfathers had pioneered, became as helpless as newborn babes when faced with the harsh reality of an aggressive and changing world. It doesn’t take an Einstein to see signs of this creeping vanity in the Valley. Bling has reared its shiny head, and that is never a good sign. You’ll recall that this was the case in Athens, too; the city’s decline can be traced almost exactly to a concomitant rise in luxury, and a taste for gourmet food. When it comes to golden ages, bling is the canary in the coal mine.”
“Some education is essential to creative genius, but beyond a certain point, more education does not increase the chances of genius and actually lowers it. The deadening effect of formal education manifests itself surprisingly early. Psychologists have identified the exact year when a child’s creative-thinking skills plateau: the fourth grade. This brings us to a remarkable finding. While the number of degrees conferred and scientific papers published has grown exponentially in the past fifty years, the “rate at which truly creative work emerges has remained relatively constant,” says sociologist J. Rogers Hollingsworth, writing in the journal Nature. We are experiencing a flood of expertise, and even talent, but no bump in creative breakthroughs.”
“Socrates says. Recognizing your ignorance is the beginning of all wisdom.”
“We may be inspired by nature—a walk in the woods, the sound of a waterfall—but something about an urban setting is especially conducive to creativity. If it takes a village to raise a child, as the African proverb goes, it takes a city to raise a genius.”
“Many a genius has done his or her best thinking while walking. While working on ‘A Christmas Carol’, Dickens would walk fifteen or twenty miles through the back streets of London, turning over the plot in his mind, as the city slept. Mark Twain walked a lot, too, though he never got anywhere. He paced while he worked, as his daughter recalled: ‘Some of the time when dictating, Father walked the floor . . . then it always seemed as if a new spirit had flown into the room.’”
“’People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the challenge of the work itself—not by external pressures.’ She warns that many schools and corporations, by placing such emphasis on rewards and evaluation, are inadvertently suppressing creativity.”
“The problem with paradise is that it is perfect and therefore requires no response. This is why wealthy people and places often stagnate.”
Hugely disappointing. I remember liking Geography of Bliss quite a bit, but this fails.
For one thing: his 'excuse' to write this is to learn how to best nurture his own child's potential for genius. Ok fine. But all this traveling, all this research, all this writing - could that have been good for her? And then, what did he learn about how geniuses and the environments that have been rich in them? Not much of anything that would actually help him with his daughter, unless he wants to be even more absent (lots of historical creative ppl had dead or abusive fathers). Still, he's going to experiment on her, load her up with expectations.
Another thing: straw man arguments. "We believe that geniuses are necessarily removed from the world around them, the absent-minded professor being the personification of this trope." Um, no, the very sub-title of the book belies that, even for ppl (not me) who have been clinging to this myth.
And, speaking of myths: incomplete fact-checking. The QWERTY keyboard story is *not* actually much like the real history. And if Weiner didn't get that right, what else did he get wrong? His credibility is suspect.
Also: 'research paper syndrome' He read/ looked at lots of books and lifted lots of ideas from them. One could argue that this book is a synthesis of them with the bonus travelogue, but I won't. I wanted Weiner to teach me something new, but no. So, he gets a *lot* from Dean Keith Simonton, and credits him in the select bibliography, so I'll look for his books. Not in the bibliography, but clearly expert and interesting, are David Harrington ("an ecology of human behavior) and Johan Huizinga ('a scholar of play'); I'll see if I can find more by them, too, maybe online.
I did like being introduced to Rabindranath Tagore and will def. have to try to read something he wrote.
And I like the distinction between Complicated and Complex. The first is comprised of discrete parts that can be (at least somewhat) swapped out, shuffled around (think a custom computer), the second is an integration wherein the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (think ecosystem).
But most of the information is unmemorable trivia that just doesn't add up to anything new. If you love casual histories, or chatty niche travelogues, and can tolerate cliched writing with forced wit, you might like this. But if you're looking for sociological insight, I already wasted enough man-hours with it; don't add yours.
كتاب جغرافيا العبقرية للمؤلف إيريك واينر من الكتب المميزة التي تمزج علم النفس بالجغرافيا بالسيرة الذاتية وبدراسة المجتمعات. يحاول الكاتب الإجابة عن السؤال التالي: لماذا تزدهر العبقرية في أماكن وأزمان معينة ولا تلبث أن تخبو بعد ذلك؟ يتألف الكتاب من ثمان فصول كل منها يأخذ القارئ في جولة إلى زمان ومكان وهي كما يلي: أثينا في اليونان مع الحكيم الفيلسوف سقراط. هانغزو في الصين مع المخترع والمفكر شين كيو. فلورنسا في إيطاليا مع الفنان ليوناردو دافينشي. أدنبره في سكوتلاندا مع جون هاتون ودونالد كامبل. كالكوتا في الهند مع طاغور. فيينا الموسيقى مع موزارت وبياهوفن. فيينا علم النفس مع فرويد. وادي السيليكون بأمريكا مع ستيف جوبز.
الكتاب مفيد ويزيد من اطلاع القارئ على مواضيع كثيرة علمية وتاريخية وجغرافية وكذلك يقدم شرح واضح ومفصل للعوامل التي تؤثر في ازدهار العبقرية أو التي تؤدي إلى القضاء عليها.
Отмина си над месец, откакто прочетох “География на гения” на Ерик Уайнър, чиято “Човек търси бог” ми допадна. Настоящата има сходен начин на написване – Уайнър си набелязва няколко г��ада, в които в различно време от историята буквално са се настъпвали гении – Атина, Ханджоу, Флоренция, Единбург, Калкута, Виена (два пъти) и Силициевата долина. Уайнър не само пътува до всяко от тези места, търсейки следи от миналото им величие, но и се заравя в историята им и факторите, които са довели до техния разцвет, който до наши дни оказва всеобщо влияние.
tl;dr version of this review: "I didn't really enjoy it, but it was mostly worthwhile? I guess?" I don't know whether to give this two or three stars. I feel like "it was okay" sums up my experience but two stars seems overly harsh (yolo I'm going for it). It was just meh, honestly. I learned a lot, and I enjoyed discovering the "places" of genius and the history behind the cities, people, and cultures. That really is all I can say I liked, though. The author seemed like an alright guy, though I felt like this book was just an excuse for a normal dude with mediocre writing skills to travel the world. Which, props to him. He clearly has way better writing skills than me, and way better get-money-to-travel-the-world-with skills to boot.
EDIT: apparently I need to revisit this review with the bullet list of things I took away from this book. If I can remember them. It's been a flurry of learning lately and honestly, this book was near the bottom of the "important stuff I learned" list. EDIT x2: Okay things I remember from this book in no order: - Walking makes brain work more better. - This guy really likes talking about drinking things (coffee, tea, wine, etc.). - There was a goldfish in one of his hotel rooms. He named it. I forget the name. - There was this thing about Janus. You know, two faces. Approaching a problem from two different sides? I don't know, it was cool at the time. - To be a genius you need enough money to do things but not too much to stop doing things. - Plagues may or may not be a good way to start making baby geniuses. So get on that. - Immigration and the intersection of cultures is a great way to hatch you some genius. - There are a lot of dude geniuses because no one cares about lady geniuses. - You can literally get invited to any party if you say you're writing a book. - The author is obsessed with weather. He really, REALLY wants weather to be a factor in genius but it really isn't. - The Scots had a big enlightenment this one time that I definitely was never told about. It was a big deal. I feel bad for not knowing. - I learned I'm really actually still quite terrible at geography. - "What a culture values that it will cultivate." Or something.
Yeah alright. I think the list above shows why I had problems with this book. I like to get pure, unadulterated milky fat nonfictiony information downloaded into my brain. This book was at least half if not more "things I did while trying to figure out how to be a genius and/or make my child a genius." I'm a terrible person.
There are two things I didn't like about this book: Its Cover, and Its Title. In my opinion, the cover should have been more colorful, or a bit stronger to advertise the idea of "genius" around the world. A lamp engulfing the world map just doesn't cut it. As of the title, I think that The Geography of Genius is not limited to visiting spaces on the physical, tangible scale. In fact, it dwells more into the "time" essence of the place. Eric didn't speak only about the Athens or Florence of today, obviously. He envisioned the ancient Athens while walking the new one. It is a one big scaled "time travel". Yes, I believe the book should have been titled something like (Genius: The Child of the Pandemonium of Time and Space) - poetic, eh? even though it might sound more like the biography of Einstein- or something like (Genius, now and then, here and there)... or something similar. I think you get what I want to say.
Regardless, that didn't stop me from giving the book 5 stars. Eric really did a great job taking his readers in a long, prestigious journey around the globe. I think it intrigued the genius of my imagination (lol) for I really almost believed I am actually walking down the streets of ancient Athens, drinking some Chinese Tea at poet-ruled Hangzhou or staring at the well-known dome of Florence Cathedral, appreciating the revolution that shaped modern Italy, and perhaps the whole world. During this journey, Eric will study, and identify the reasons that led to the flourishing of these admirable (or once were admirable) cities. He will reveal to you all, that genius is not only born, or learnt, or whatever mythical reason behind it all. It is actually more "complex" - not complicated- than that. Curios enough? You want to know how Mozart, Beethoven and Freud came to be? You want to have a glimps of why Socrates is so famous today? You want the chamber of secrets of Steve Jobs' success opened to you? Yup, this is your book.
The book is written in a novelistic interdisciplinary fashion where the author magically story tells his journey to 7 different places to understand historical and present "genius" eras with various writing flavors (philosophy, business, psychology, physics, social science, history). It is a nonfiction travelogue with little bits of the aforementioned flavors.
I liked the "schema violations" concept and how participating in such activity or merely watching it inspires the genius in you. It is when, for example, you make the breakfast in the wrong order or start doing things in a revolutionary opposing manner. It is what I call "taking an 'antonym' approach to life".
The book makes Athens, Florence, Vienna, Calcutta, Hangzhou, Edinburgh and Silicon Valley ten times more interesting to explore than before.
As a reader, the trouble with (relatively) high expectations comes into play when a book proves a decent, worthwhile read, but there are times "I still have that much to go!" kicks in. Such was the case here, more than once; a confession, however, that I read it primarily for the travel narrative aspect. The search for "genius" itself I found a bit too philosophical, with the local interview portions just not holding my interest consistently.
Weiner's self-deprecating humor went a ways towards getting me through this one, but ... well ... how I don't want to say this ... parts were still a slog. Perhaps, had I listened to each place profiled separately, with time between over a longer period, things might have proved easier? Another reviewer mentioned that Athens made a strong start, but she felt the book unsustained after that; I don't fully agree, but I get her point. He went on after that to China, which made absolutely no impression on me at all; later references to that section I found meaningless. I'm not an Italophile, nor into The Renaissance, so Florence was probably less interesting to me than others, but not bad. I am "into" India, so his time in Calcutta worked for me (it had a fair amount of travel narrative content). Scotland left me wondering why I had trouble getting through it, probably the reliance on interviews. Interestingly, I had low expectations for Silicon Valley, which proved an effective bookend for closure.
Eric gave a shout out to Goodreads at one point, so it's likely he reads these reviews (daily? hourly??). If so, my less-than-enthusiastic review has as much to do with the subject matter and choice of locations than its being a "dull" book. There are lots of other topics yet to explore, so here's to the next one, hopefully sooner rather than later!
Cafes are a second kind of home - "a great good place."
The past, it's been said, is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
Squint. Sometimes we can see more by narrowing our view than by expanding it.
I'm hoping to find answers to questions, or at least better questions, as Socrates would say.
The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.
The inability to acknowledge and mourn loss is apt to lead to a shutdown of vital creative impulses...only the resolution of loss allows for a fresh start and renewed access to sources of creativity.
Genius is sorrow's child.
Human happiness never remains long in the same place.
Coffee made me think more quickly, but tea made me think more deeply.
The past is like that. It is absent and then suddenly not absent. The present doesn't displace the past; it conceals it.
Keep asking. The road to wisdom is paved with good questions.
Places of genius require a degree of uncertainty, and perhaps even chaos.
May you live in interesting times.
In China, a good day is a rainy day. Rain means life.
A deep and abiding sense of awe is an indispensable aspect of genius.
The beauty of sudden seeing. It is a fatal fault to reason whilst observing. See what is before you, the thing itself. Analyze later.
A truly creative person perceives not only "the pastness of the past but also its presence."
When you push me here (solar plexus) - I don't push back. Instead I fight you here, and here. Where you don't expect it. The idea is to use wisdom, fight smart, always keep your balance.
Sprezzatura - a squirt of something extra.
It is useful to be ignorant of bad knowledge.
I desire the things that will destroy me in the end. - Sylvia Plath
It surprises, and surprise, along with the attendant phenomena of wonder and awe, lies at the heart of all creative genius.
The densest happiness.
The great affair is to move.
If we knew what we were doing we wouldn't call it research.
That's the way doubt works. It either paralyzes or emboldens. Nothing in between.
Here is another trait common to geniuses: an utter and complete lack of self-consciousness.
Most of us look. The genius sees.
Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.
Picasso was asked if he knew what a painting was going to look like when he started it, and he said, 'No, of course not. If I knew, I wouldn't bother doing it.
I believe we must adjourn this meeting to another place. (on Adam Smith's deathbed)
The chaos and madness has its own rhythm. Chaos is the Neighbor of God.
Chance favors the prepared mind.
The great affair is to move.
Individualism combined with gregariousness. Each one does what he/she wants while enjoying being part in a group. -People whose hatred of their fellow human beings is as fierce as their longing for people, who want to be alone but need companionship for it.
Auf geht's, mein Kleiner. Du Schaffst das! Let's go my little one. You can do it! People accuse the Germans of not being creative, but their language is fabulously flexible. The Germans are inventing words constantly. The language was designed for inventing words.
Can you still hike in these woods? One can hike. A tough man climbs the mountain. A wise man sits in the water.
Nature = a glorious school for the heart.
Music, good music, is about "exporting sadness."
Two attitudes seem modern in our time: analyzing life and escaping from it. In the coffeehouse, you could do both simultaneously, and for only a few shillings. It was pure genius.
When asked about the secret to a happy life, Freud famously answered, "Liebe und Arbeit." Love and work.
"Remember it and move on" is the way of genius. (vs. forget)
How different from today, when an academic is considered successful when no one can understand a word he says.
Recognizing your ignorance is the beginning of all wisdom. -Socrates
The novels help me understand others. The music helps me understand myself.
Creativity doesn't happen "in here" or "out there" but in the spaces in between.
I love this book. It was well written, a delight to read. And that is no easy task when covering such a heady subject as genius.
I feel the need to read this book again but this time take notes. It is so jam-packed full of interesting things. And by things I mean wisdom.
It also made me want to write a play or short story about all the geniuses throughout history and how they would fare in the same time period. Also the apparent misogyny that rears its ugly head because all “the greats” are often mostly all dudes. Even today this is true.
This book was part history and part anthropology and part travelogue. It’s also very witty.
What the author does really well is to ask questions and pluck the threads that run through genius Renaissance’s throughout human history. It is told chronologically with each locale and time period getting its own chapter. Genius structure.
There are many insights in this book which strike at the chord of genius but like Lao Tzu’s verses only points the way versus writing in stone the way.
I highly recommend this book. Even for those that rarely read nonfiction, this book is one you will enjoy. It’s packed with great stuff yet is such an easy and enjoyable read. Kudos to the author. I will be reading him again.
If there’s one thing to take from The Geography of Genius, it’s this:
“What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.”
It’s why ancient Greece excelled in philosophy (but lived without basic plumbing), and 18th century Vienna produced a whole crop of composers still considered the best in the world (who were all men, because women were expected to have babies, not ideas), and the 20th century exploded the ways that we communicate electronically (but has pretty much ignored art and philosophy).
Weiner’s new book, like those before, is good for what it is: an individual man’s personal tour around the world, talking to a few people about a Big Idea.
If you’re looking for a scientific or comprehensive study of genius and place, this isn’t it. But it is interesting, and Weiner draws some thought-provoking conclusions. (Spoiler: it’s all about diversity, disorder, and discernment.) A homogenous, stable place tends to coast…and stagnate. But when the neighbors have sacked your city, or the plague has wiped out half your population, or a spirit of revolution is sweeping your entire continent, doing things differently sounds like a good idea. And when you are surrounded by others who can encourage, support, and challenge your work, the potential for world-changing genius is there.
We get the geniuses that we want and that we deserve.
I had a hard time getting through the chapters. Maybe travel writing isn't for me. Maybe Eric Weiner isn't for me. I just ... trudged. It was ok. I appreciate the amount of work that went into this and I found the premise of the book interesting, but just wasn't completely down for the execution. He jumped around a lot, and seemed to be talking more about different places rather than the one he was currently in. I just would have liked more. Maybe more dialogue between the people he was interviewing at the different sites? Maybe a more frequent visit to his central thesis? Maybe... just maybe...
He did have some really nice points. What I took away from the book was: "What is honored in a country will be cultivated there"
It ... was just ok for me. And reading other people's reviews I see that it just might not be my cup of tea.
Received as an ARC from the publisher. Started 10-17-15. Finished 10-28-15. Excellent, well-researched book about times and places in the world where "genius" developed: Athens, Hangzhou (China), Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and Silicon Valley. Written in a straight-forward manner but also with humor.It explains the relationship between the "bright and creative folks" and their environment, including their families, and their historic times. So along the way, the reader also gets a history lesson, and the trivia that's included is fascinating. You'll view the world differently after reading this book.
Eric Weiner travels the world to help us discover more about ourselves - and manages to pull it off in an entertaining and conversational way. In Geography of Bliss and again in Geography of Genius, he offers personal, thoughtful, and witty explorations of different places (and, in this book, periods of time) - holding them up as mirrors to ourselves. It's an entertaining and informative book!
This would be a great book if it wasn't about the geography of genius.
Eric Weiner, philosophical traveler and recovering malcontent" (HA!), sets out on a globetrotting tour to identify what, if anything, makes places of genius so ripe for genius. From Athens to Edinburgh, from Calcutta to Silicon Valley, he explores each city's famous (and infamous) landmarks, and talks with experts on a variety of subjects, trying to discern what allowed Florence to have its Renaissance, what about Vienna cultivated Mozart, just to name a few examples. And when Weiner is out on the streets (or, more often, in bars and coffeehouses) talking to people, that's when the book is most interesting, painting vivid portraits of particular places at particular times in history.
Too often, however, this is not Weiner's focus.
Instead, the majority of the book is dedicated to Weiner's GRAND THEORY of the geography of genius. What is that theory? That's never made clear. In his introduction Weiner attempts a general explanation of what genius is and how it's perceived from culture to culture, but it's all too broad a discussion to hit upon anything really significant. And where Weiner needs clarification, he has none. Having given us a general sense of what he defines as "genius", we as readers can somewhat understand why he decides to go to places like Athens, Florence and Vienna. When his intent is not as clear, as is the case with Calcutta and Edinburgh, he clarifies. But, I found myself asking, why only these particular places? Why ignore the massive contributions of the Egyptians and the Romans? Why not Dublin, at the time of Beckett and Joyce? And what of the ex-Pats: those American writers who found their way to France? Why did Weiner choose these particular places of genius and not others?
But perhaps that's asking too much of Weiner. The Geography of Genius is not and (I'm guessing) never was an in-depth academic study. Weiner cites studies (more on that later), but very few statistics are seen. Even the subject itself--the geography of genius--strikes me as a pop science subject, and Weiner's bibliography seems to bear this feeling out. His previous books include The Geography of Bliss and Man Seeks God and judging by those titles alone, I'm given the impression of a man who writes with a slight self-help bias. I have no doubt he's a fine philosophical traveler: one of his previous credits is as a foreign correspondent for NPR. But it must be made clear that this is not just a book about the geography of genius. This is a book about the geography of genius AND how it may apply to your own life.
Which, in and of itself, is not a critique. I like pop science if it's well-written, and if someone can get something useful out of a self-help book, then more power to them (literally). The problem with The Geography of Genius is that, to my mind, it satisfies neither criteria. Weiner is a fine writer, but too often does he dismiss ideas that don't fit his general "thesis" of genius. For example, in Silicon Valley he's presented with the phrase "fail better": a fine phrase, worth at least some exploration. Weiner, however, dismisses it right out, asserting one can only "fail different". A valid opinion, but when you're in the business of exploring different cultures, it seems beneficial to question rather to dismiss. And sometimes he does question. Reading his internal struggle, we as readers come to understand how Weiner's trip around the world dispels many of his preconceived notions about various cultures and myths about the genius mindset. But as I say, that questioning only goes so far. If it serves a purpose in his main thesis, he explores it. If not, then it simply isn't worth his time.
And this lack of questioning extends to fairly fundamental topics: ones that could change his research in its entirety. Several cultures he encounters, for example,were notable for their excessive drinking. Some diluted their libations, but others did not. In Florence, for instance, Weiner discovers that the master craftsman and his apprentices would drink heavily, even before noon. Instead of exploring the implications of such a thing, Weiner wonders how they could get anything done! Such is the case for any dicier topic, making his narrative feel very safe and restrained and, consequently, uninformed.
Slavery, for example, is identified as an unfortunate part of Athenian society. End of story, in Weiner's mind. But what are the implications of slavery regarding his theory of the geography of genius, Athens was not the only city on his tour that utilized slave labor. Hell, Silicon Valley, for the past few years, has been lambasted by critics for poor living conditions and sweatshop-like working environments, neither of which receive even a mention in Weiner's chapter on the valley. And this was written in 2016! Long after this controversies were brought to light! But mentioning such things would undermine the positivism of Weiner's genius theory. Same with Freud. Though acknowledging that his theories have fallen out of fashion, Weiner doesn't explore how that falling out could relate to the rise and fall of genius, instead fawning over Freud's innovations and wondering what he would have seen sitting in a Vienna coffeehouse.
(This isn't worth a whole paragraph, but as mentioned, the majority of the book is spent describing what Weiner drinks. Potentially thought-provoking, but if it's alcohol, Weiner won't go deeper than the foam at the top of the glass.)
As the book proceeds, chapter to chapter, we get less travelogue and more theory on what makes a genius place a genius place, with many paragraphs reading, "Does X lead to something-something genius? I don't think so." And the studies he frequently cites, though interesting to think about, don't do much in supporting his theory. Many of experiments he references involve an impartial panel judging works of art as "more" creative or "less" creative. But who was on that panel? What qualifies as more or less creative? Creativity, by the way, like genius, remains largely undefined in The Geography of Genius. Weiner assumes we know what creativity is, and that if an anonymous panel judges something as "more" creative, then they really must know what they're talking about.
But creativity and genius inside, what sort of advice does this book impart to us, the common reader? Even if the research is shaky, can some sort of wisdom be gained that we can apply to our everyday lives? In order to highlight the applicability of genius, Weiner promises to share whatever he's learned with his young daughter, who, unlike him, still has hope (his assertion, not mine). And it's cute, the lessons he brings back to his home, but there's something . . . off. In his travels, he learns many times over that there is a difference between genius and knowledge, that academic success does not translate to creative genius. However, when his astute daughter asks him, in knowing this, why she still has to go to school, he tells her to ask her mother. Again, cute, but it's a valid question, and his lack of an answer speaks volumes as to his insight.
At the beginning of The Geography of Genius, Weiner reveals that many are skeptical of his theory and if he'll find anything to prove it. And indeed, his scope was too broad in order to find a unifying theory of the geography of genius. But he does still offer up a conclusion, albeit a very measured, qualified conclusion. Genius cluster arise from very unique circumstances, and though there are similarities between these clusters, there's no definitive pattern. At one point, he speculates on whether or not Silicon Valley will be the last genius cluster, which is laughable, and whether or not we can predict and control where the next genius cluster will pop up. Why these questions are included is beyond me? The epilogue, summarizing the entirety of Weiner's hands-on research, feels like an afterthought: something he needed to include because, well, his book needed a wrap-up.
I tried to like this book, I really did. As I said, any time Weiner's interacting with locals and taking in the sights, it's a delight. We learn more through his vicarious experiences than by any sort of analysis he offers. But he has an agenda, and that, I believe, is the inherent flaw in his grand experiment. In his travels, Weiner discovers cultures built on discussion and conversation: modes of dialogue that are more productive by lacking a purpose. This, he asserts, is why corporate brainstorming doesn't work. The pressure of coming up with a big idea squashes creative conversation. That, in my opinion, is The Geography of Genius in a nutshell. By setting out with a grand thesis in mind, Weiner undermines the very principle he's trying to prove.
Abysmal read. And the worst part? We're discussing it at our staff in-service day in the fall. Oof.
I enjoyed this book immensely, especially the chapters on Florence, Athens and Edinburgh. So much to think about, to chew on as you read about these places in their flourishing. A couple of quotes I loved:
''Plato ... also invented the water clock, an ingenious but diabolical device that utilized water pressure to sound an alarm. Plato's clock was used to time political meetings; thus, the common complaint about long-winded orators who gave speeches that were 'nine gallons long.'''
''The top left letters on a typewriter spell QWERTY. Why? Is that the most efficient way of arranging the letters? Hardly, in fact, it is purposefully inefficient. The early typewriters jammed frequently, so designers arranged the keys in a way that would slow down the typist and minimize the risk of jamming. Improved typewriters were longer prone to jamming but the QWERTY keyboard had already caught on. Typists got used to it and worked around the constraints it imposed. Typing schools taught it. So, it stuck, even though it was not the 'best' arrangement.''
Another quality book by my boy Eric, plenty of geographical themes sprinkled with historical interludes, perhaps too much history. Can geniuses be created? Can places of greatness be cultivated with an intent purpose? No. But this book does give insight into how places of genius were firstly shaped and subsequently shaped the geography around them, for better (Silicon Valley) or worse (Athens and Florence who are still suffering from their respective golden ages today.
Love the book and would absolutely recommend to Lucy.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
“The Geography of Genius” is a bit of a puzzle. The author’s stated goal is “a search for the world’s most creative places.” A search is certainly what it is; as others have pointed out, much of the book is a travelogue, and a pretty interesting one. At the same time, the author aspires to find out WHY genius arises in specific places. But he’s coy about that being the goal, probably because the goal is too large. This makes the book somewhat frustrating as social analysis. Nonetheless, Weiner has a variety of interesting observations and insights.
By “genius,” Weiner means “creative genius,” defined as “the highest form of creativity.” In his definition, a genius is a person who comes has “the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable.” And, genius must be publicly acknowledged by society at large—Weiner quotes the 19th Century scientist Francis Galton, “A genius is a man to whom the world deliberately acknowledges itself largely indebted.” In this book, that includes not just scientific geniuses, though those predominate, but philosophers (Aristotle); musicians (Mozart, Beethoven, etc.); and “other” (Freud).
Weiner starts in Athens, focusing naturally on Classical Athens, and ends in Silicon Valley, focusing on today. In each place, he wanders around, meets local people, and inquires searchingly about the place. He floats musing theories on why the particular place nurtured genius at a particular time, using the framework of discussing individual geniuses, from Socrates on. He supplements his musings with summaries of relevant social science, which tend to a bit frustrating, because they are short, lacking footnotes, and held up in isolation without discussion of alternative viewpoints. But overall, it’s a fun journey.
A different, and accurate, subtitle for the book could have been “How I Noticed Only The West Produces Geniuses.” Weiner does have badly failed attempts to find genius in two non-Western places: China in the 11th Century, and Calcutta in the late 19th and early 20th (although, of course, the latter was the hybrid British-Indian culture of the Raj, where forward progress was almost all British-driven).
As far as China, Weiner focuses on Hangzhou, where he is able to find and profile only one genius, the 11th Century Shen Kuo. I never heard of him, but he does seem to meet the definition of genius. But in another section Weiner notes “one genius does not a golden age make,” and it’s not really clear that Shen Kuo has had any impact on Chinese, much less global, society. Weiner then has a shout-out to Jack Ma, also from Hangzhou, and then announces Hangzhou produced “a large litter of geniuses,” naming no others at all.
Of course, I’m not the first to point out that China, despite its millennia of civilization and advanced capabilities, failed ultimately to lead the modern world in anything and throughout history produced few men of genius. Weiner does repeatedly cite Joseph Needham, the great American historian and lover of China who exposed Chinese history to the West. But even Needham bemoaned that China developed no modern science of any kind. As can be seen from reading other books, like Toby Huff’s “The Rise of Early Modern Science,” Chinese bureaucracy, Confucian focus on the mythical exemplary past, emperor supremacy, and the mandarin system offered no incentives for either the centrality of rational thought and dialectic, universal legal principles, or experimental scientific inquiry on abstract principles, all things ultimately necessary for most geniuses to flourish.
Weiner actually indirectly answers the question he does not pose, why China lacks geniuses, by concluding that, in the Chinese (or “Eastern,” as he paints it with a broad brush, though he’s talking about China), “all discoveries are actually rediscoveries, all inventions reinventions. There is nothing new under the sun, but the old is plenty wonderful, and . . . just waiting to be uncovered.” This is just a shorter way to say that the Chinese system limited innovation, and therefore limited the creation of geniuses.
As far as Calcutta, Weiner names a few men as geniuses that few people outside India ever heard of and who had mostly local impact, who were the product of British culture as much as Indian (although some produced worthwhile science wholly in the Western tradition, such as Satyendra Nath Bose, of the Bose-Einstein condensate). Apparently, though, in modern Calcutta they are prone to the typical fantasies of cultures with an inferiority complex. Weiner quotes one of his interlocutors as saying, without discussion or evidence, “For one hundred and fifty years, nothing could challenge Calcutta, nothing, from Tokyo to Cairo.” Uh-huh. Maybe Calcutta could not be challenged in such leading indicators as heat and density of poor people, but beyond that, what Calcutta is mostly known for is Mother Teresa, who was Albanian, and, for the historically minded, the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Ultimately, Weiner is really only able to find genius in the sense he means it (a time and place producing multiple geniuses) in the West: Athens, Florence, Edinburgh, Vienna, Silicon Valley. While he doesn’t advert to it, and a complete theory of why is well beyond the scope of his book, the simple fact Weiner effectively demonstrates is that genius is extremely rare, and if it were not for the West, the modern world would be very much less modern.
To the extent Weiner advances his own theory of what creates genius, it appears to be some combination of Toynbee’s “challenge and response” (to which Weiner directly refers), combined with fluidity of the society in question and a good deal of unpredictability. Weiner also nods repeatedly, without really dipping in, to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—that a culture’s language forms how it views the world, and that can have a significant impact on what the culture accomplishes (among other things, he suggests that the Chinese written language discourages innovation and creativity).
And, most importantly for the comparative nature across cultures of genius production, Weiner notes “The number of geniuses who appear in any given field at any given time is a function not of the pool of talent available, but, rather, the attractiveness of the filed. The reason, for instance, we find far fewer brilliant composers of classical music today than in the nineteenth century is not because composers are less talented, or owing to some strange and sudden genetic deficiency, but because far fewer ambitious young people see classical music as the way to make their mark in the world. What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” Maybe this is part of why non-Western cultures create few or no geniuses. If you are poor (like Africa has always been), or have a culture that does not value “ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable,” such as Islamic societies post 900 A.D., or China at any point, you get few geniuses, or none.
Throughout the book Weiner has interesting insights, many of them puncturing clichés about success. Talking about failure, Weiner says “Usually, when the topic comes up, so, too, does the old bromide about how successful people ‘embrace failure.” Which is true. They do. Except it is also true that failures embrace failure. If anything, they embrace it more tightly. So, what is the difference between failure that leads to innovation and failure that leads to . . . more failure?” (He concludes it is remembering failure that is beneficial, not forgetting it and moving on as we are often told to do.) Similarly, he points out that it’s a total myth that entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are taking risks—the reality is if that they fail, or they lose their job, they can all easily find another great, high-paying job. They have “a huge net.” Weiner contrasts this with the risk takers of Florence, where if you failed, “you destroyed yourself, you destroyed your family for generations.” Another insight, quoting Hume, is “the same age which produces great philosophers and politicians, renowned generals and poets, usually abounds with skilled weavers and ship-carpenters.”
On the other hand, the book is also shot through with statements that are dubious or simply false. Referring to marginalized peoples being successful, Weiner says, without a reference, that “Unitarians, per capita, account for a hundred times more notable scientists than do Methodists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics.” But Unitarians aren’t marginalized. (Not to mention that they are the “religion” that, as they say, believes in one God—at most. It’s mostly just a way of being “spiritual but not religious.”) He repeatedly seems to miss notable items (he stays on Draco Street in Athens, but seems unaware that Draco was a man who could have been fit into his narrative). He get facts wrong (he says nobody thought Greek vases were art until the 1970s, which would have surprised Keats; he says the Greeks “never met a sexual act they didn’t like,” which is totally wrong on every level; he says Greek city-states “fought a few spectacularly bloody wars, but mostly they ignored one another,” which deserves no comment at all). He pulls out the old and false legend that the medieval Church forbade dissections—totally untrue, although true in the Muslim world, which is why medieval Christian anatomical conceptions were so much more detailed and correct than the extremely crude ones produced in Islam.
But perhaps these are small things, if you simply view the book as an enjoyable travelogue, necessarily somewhat superficial, through no real fault of the author. So that’s what I recommend you do.
This is one of the best travel books I have read in years, although perhaps it shouldn't strictly be put into that narrow genre. It's actually a combination of biography, history, and sociology or as I like to call it, a guide to the thinking person's road trip. It helps if you've actually traveled to some of the places covered by Weiner (I count Athens, Edinburgh, Florence, and Silicon Valley among the journeying points I have landed). Of course, that's optional. The book would be completely enjoyable even if you hadn't been to any of them.
What makes the book (and any trip) so fascinating is following the thread of an idea that inspires. In this case, Weiner is on the search for genius. Why are certain cities magnets for genius? He does this by exploring both the people and places that made genius famous, from Vienna's two golden ages (one musical, with the genius of Mozart and Beethoven and the other more diverse, with Freud, Klimt, and others at the fin de siecle) to the poetic genius of Calcutta.
What makes genius? The questions, as Weiner assures us, are more important than the answers. Often it's easier to discern what doesn't lead to genius, but it's perhaps surprising some of the key conditions that tend to show up in places like Athens or Florence or Hangzhou. Places where genius seem to spring up are not lost paradises, but areas of chaos and striving, where there's freedom of ideas, but also discernment. Vienna could not have created its musical geniuses without a discerning classical music audience or critics.
This is a fascinating book that I really didn't want to end -- the highest of compliments. It's the kind of book that, as soon as you are finished, you want to read again for all the nuances you missed the first time. If this topic or travel intrigues you at all, hurry and order your own copy of "The Geography of Genius," you won't be sorry!
The subtitle is all the synopsis you need: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.
Weiner explores the culture of various cities and eras that resulted in an environment that fostered genius – Ancient Athens, Hangzhou in the time of the Song Dynasty, Renaissance Florence, 18th century Edinburgh, Calcutta from about 1840 to 1920, Vienna with TWO golden ages, separated by nearly a century (Mozart to Freud), and California’s Silicon Valley.
He looks at whether individual effort was more important than cooperation within a group; how financial need influenced the genius; the role of nurture vs nature; and the preponderance of failure which spurs the genius to continue working. It’s an interesting book, but not a particularly compelling one, and there were times when I just zoned out. Still, I learned a little about a variety of subjects.
Weiner reads the audio book himself. He clearly has a passion for the subject, which is especially evident in the epilogue.
3.5/5 This book tries to analyse why "golden ages" happen by looking at 7 city+era combinations and... fails. But it is the journey that matters not the destination, isnt it ? When he does abandon his pseudo-comic, loud idiotic irritating tone, the author provides some really valuable insights and anecdotes. But, as an engineer would put it, he has pointed out the necessary conditions for golden ages and not the sufficient ones. In colloquial language, its all hindsight :)
The geography where genius lives, in the eyes of Eric Weiner, include ancient civilizations such as Athens; more recent but still old Hangzhou, Florence, and Edinburgh; slightly more recent Calcutta and Vienna; and the modern in-progress of Silicon Valley. With each location he interviews modern thinkers and guides as well as delves into appropriate texts. What emerges is an informative and sometimes entertaining look at the factors - and locations - that have spawned genius.
Genius is, of course, more than a little subjective and one could disagree with both Weiner's choices of locale and his examples of genius. That said, he does provide significant fodder for thought. His chapter titles suggest "Genius is Simple...or Nothing New...or Expensive...or Practical...etc.," which are largely uninformative in themselves. But upon these premises he hangs his discussions. Did Florence spawn so many geniuses (mostly artists such as da Vinci, Michelangelo) because the wealthy elites and Church spent so much money on what essentially was propaganda? Was Calcutta's chaos the reason geniuses arose there? And what was it about Vienna, which pumped out two different periods of genius development? Weiner explores the basic premise and others in generally accessible writing.
In the end the answer is probably some version of "all of the above." Genius is not necessarily simple, nor easily definable. In his epilogue he suggests "Three Ds: disorder, diversity, and discernment" as the set of attributes that lead to genius. Is he right? Who knows. As he notes several times; genius is in the eye of the beholder. It's up to the reader to decide if Weiner get is right or not.
As a researcher interested in the topic of creativity, I thought this would be a nice subversion from the stinking pile of mess called academic papers accessible through Google Scholar. I love travel tales such as Michael Booth's cooking travel books, and Weiner clearly knows how to captivate an audience. Some chapters made less sense than others, and every time, the conclusion was a both dismissive and disappointing. For me, the interesting parts include sentences such as "many researchers found out that x" - only, the references in my pocket edition are are missing? Why? The selected biography is useless. Glad I did buy it, it caused me to connect a few dots, but it could do with some more streamlining.
W całym tym poszukiwaniu i omawianiu miejsc geniuszu zabrakło mi tego, co spaja cały świat w jedno olbrzymie siedlisko - literatury. Skoro autor mógł skupić się na Mozarcie, Beethovenie i Freudzie oraz całej rzeszy Wielkich Nazwisk, zupełnie nie rozumiem czemu pominął Umberta Eco, Ursulę Le Guin, Franka Herberta, Marqueza czy innych, którzy naprawdę są godni uwagi. Czuję niedosyt i to olbrzymi.
Baca buku ini untuk yang kedua kalinya. Dulu saya suka sama buku ini, tetapi entah kenapa kali kedua baca ini lagi, saya merasa penilaian penulis agak aneh ya, dan negara-negara yang ditelitinya kebanyakan yang umum. Ada banyak pengetahuan baru dan informasi berguna pastinya dari buku ini, hanya saja beberapa hal membuat saya urung memberikan 4 apalagi 5 bintang.