Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review: The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Genius

Author: Eric Weiner
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Date of Publication: January 5, 2016
Pages: 368

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit;  genius hits a target no one else can see."
- German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer

      Eric Weiner is a former N.P.R. correspondent who describes himself on his web-site ( as a "philosophical traveler".   He has crafted a unique book, the stated goal of which is to try to define what creates an atmosphere which promotes genius.  Specifically, what made ancient Athens, 12th Century Hangzhou, Florence in the 1500s, 18th Century Edinburgh, Vienna in 1800 and 1900 and Silicon Valley in the 21st Century such centers of creative genius?  Did these areas have common qualities which might explain bursts of brilliance?  The Geography of Genius is composed of equal parts travelogue, history lesson, character study and diary.

     The author travels to each of these locations to examine what he calls "genius clusters". He uses various research techniques including exploring the locations thoroughly, conducting interviews with local experts and reading contemporary writings and texts.  He does indeed identify several key ingredients to the promotion of genius.  The first of these is mentors.  Prime examples of this are the Medicis in Florence and Emperor Joseph II of Austria, a patron of the arts during the time of Mozart and Beethoven.  Weiner also notes that other attributes which promote creative genius are an openness to new ideas and chaos (which the author notes shakes a civilization out of its routines).  This occurs in areas flooded with immigrants such as ancient Athens, Austria and even Florence.   Most of these areas are located near the sea, increasing the likelihood of foreign visitors and free exchange of ideas.

     Weiner notes that a good set of attributes for an area to promote genius are "the three Ds: disorder, diversity, and discernment.  Disorder, as we've seen, is necessary to shake up the status quo, to create a break in the air.  Diversity, of both peoples and viewpoints, is needed to produce not only more dots but also different kinds of dots.  Discernment is perhaps the most important, and overlooked, ingredient.  Linus Pauling, the renowned chemist and two-time Noel Prize winner, was once asked by a student how to come up with good ideas.  It's easy, replied Pauling.  'You have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.'"

    Several concepts struck me as particularly relevant to 21st Century America.  The first is the author's discussion of why these areas of genius eventually collapse:

"As we've seen, a golden age doesn't last long.  A few decades, perhaps a half century or so, then it disappears as suddenly as it arrived.  Places of genius are fragile.  They are far easier to destroy than to build.  Great civilizations rise to greatness for different reasons but collapse for essentially the same reason: arrogance."

     The author also gives a stern warning to our current education system:

"The expectation of a reward or evaluation, even a positive evaluation, squelches creativity.  This phenomenon is called the extrinsic theory of motivation.  Stated simply, 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.  Many schools and corporations, by placing such an emphasis on rewards and evaluation, are inadvertently suppressing creativity."

     Finally, in what I think is the most relevant thought for modern times, Weiner quotes Plato: "What is honored in a country will be cultivated there."  Weiner then asks: "What did the Athenians honor?  They honored nature and the power of walking.  They were no gourmands but enjoyed their wine, as long as it was sufficiently diluted.  They took their civic responsibilities, if not their personal hygiene, seriously.  They loved the arts, though they wouldn't have phrased it that way.  They lived simply and simply lived.  Often, beauty was thrown in, and when it was, they paid attention.  They thrived on competition, but not for personal glory.  They didn't shrink from change, or even death.  They deployed words precisely and powerfully.  They saw the light.  They lived in profoundly insecure times, and rather than retreat behind walls, the Athenians bear-hugged that uncertainty, thistles and all, remaining open in every way, even when prudence might dictate otherwise.  This openness made Athens Athens.  Openness to foreign goods, odd people, strange ideas."

    This is a very thought provoking book.  We live in a time when budget restraints have all but removed music and the arts from our schools.  We reward mediocrity and promote conformity.  Our politicians prey on our fears and endorse closed-mindedness and closing borders.   As I listen to the brash rhetoric of another election cycle I am haunted by the author's assertion that all great civilizations collapse for the same reason: arrogance.  What are the chances that this environment in which we live will promote another "genius cluster" or golden age of creativity and innovation?   Plato's assertion that "what a country honors will be cultivated there" is disconcerting as well.

     The Geography of Genius is a totally absorbing read.  It is informative, entertaining and very thought provoking all at once.  It was already named a "Best Book of the Month" for January 2016 by and I expect that many more honors will follow.  

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