The Geography Of Genius, by Eric Wiener, read by the author
As someone with a deep, personal interest in genius , I had high hopes for this book, but I found it greatly disappointing on a variety of levels. For one, this book depends highly on the likability of the author, and when one reads his whining about travels and his constant insecurity and nebbishness, a great deal of the enjoyment of the book is removed as well. In addition to this, the author’s views on genius are not very appealing, not least because of the way that he frames genius as being implacably hostile to tradition, fond of transgression of the laws of God and man, and also being ideas that are not necessarily very good ones at all–Freud and Darwin come particularly into focus here. This is a book that will likely be enjoyed by those who think they are grasping the essential aspects of place when it comes to genius but it is definitely a disappointing read (or listen) to anyone who wants genuine insight on worthwhile and lasting genius, the only kind that matters. There is not a lot that is timeless in this book besides the author’s interest in painting himself as some sort of expert on genius.
This audiobook, in 12 discs, purports to determine the geography of genius by having the author choose a suitably diverse set of locations and travel to them to see what it is about them that made them cultivate genius and how it is that the golden ages of the place faltered. The places chosen include ancient Athens, a city of Song China, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and Silicon Valley. He shows a strong interest in Eastern religion, bad science and philosophy, the quirks and eccentricities of those who are judged to be geniuses, and spends a lot of time talking to a lot of people more insightful than himself in order to popularize their insights concerning why it is that places get the geniuses that they deserve and why genius is so difficult to cultivate. While there are some useful insights here, including the fact that technology does not appear to be a decisive element, and that genius usually (but not always) comes about accidentally as a result of striving against constraints in one’s environment while also simultaneously striving for glory in the face of adverse circumstances, much of this book consists of narrative history about people the author deems to be geniuses with worthwhile accomplishments, which has a mixed record in terms of its worth.
It is not only true that areas and societies get the sort of geniuses that they deserve and that they are looking for, but the same is also true of those who write about geniuses. Given the narrow and anti-religious bias of the author, for all of his self-proclamations of broad-mindedness and a claim to want to learn from history, the author’s presuppositions and unexamined biases lead him to only find those geniuses, and hence those places with a golden age, that he is looking for. He wants to find places that are highly secular, and so he finds them. He wants to find places that are multicultural, and so he finds them. He wants places that have some sort of cautionary tale for the readers, and so he finds those, whether it is in the collapse of Vienna’s prestige due to its defeat in World War I or the imperial overreach of Athens or the military weakness of Florence and the Song Dynasty, and so on and so forth. If you are looking for some useful stories that are occasionally amusing, there is much to find here, but if you are looking for real insight, this book is sadly lacking.
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