Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner - Book Review

In the Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley (Simon & Schuster, 2016, 368 Pages, $26.95/12.99) author Eric Weiner visits seven cities located around the world during different eras. In this amusing and interesting journey, he seeks to unearth, sometimes literally, the factors that have led to the emergence of great waves of creativity in places that might seem unlikely in retrospect. Weiner asks what factors do ancient Athens, Hangzhou China, Renaissance Florence, 18th century Edinburgh, turn of the 20 th century Calcutta, Vienna in two periods, and contemporary Silicon Valley share the helped create periods of great creative genius? It's as if something in the air, the social/cultural environment of place creates the conditions for genius to flower in such a way that it has an effect rebounding down through history. Wiener has a nice turn of phrase, the ability to make pungent comments that make a reader stop in mid-page to savor the remark. Along the way, he visits the contemporary cities he's writing about, getting in contact with local scholars and high level tourist guides to help acquaint him with the culture and ambience of the past.

As Weiner wanders around the cities which proved themselves to be birthplaces of ideas and art, he also refers to contemporary psychology and sociology where studies have carefully examined the processes of creativity and innovation. By applying the criteria and standards of contemporary studies to ages past, I suspect Weiner may be making cross cultural errors himself, but the tentative conclusions he finds still carry the ring of authenticity. For instance, he suggest that creativity doesn't flourish in an atmosphere of too much plenty or too many choices. With too much wealth, life becomes easy and a person can satisfy needs through buying stuff. Many materials choices, for an artist, make it too easy to make do with what's available, rather than find new ways to achieve a creative goal. He makes a strong argument for restricted space, too. Therefore, cities like Athens, Florence, Edinburgh flourished when they were relatively small and striving to develop.

Social conditions seem to help with the development of creativity. Freedom is important, but democracy is not necessary. Athens achieved its heights under the rule of Pericles, a leader who encouraged art and ideas to flourish. On the other hand, Sparta, a closed society surrounded by walls, was powerful, but not the seat of great creativity. Weiner comments that the Spartans “walled themselves off from the outside world, and nothing kills creativity faster than a wall.” Apparently, the greater a country's openness, the greater its creative achievements. Similarly, in the Vienna of the late 1700's, the Emperor Joseph II ruled, while Mozart and then Beethoven thrived. Later, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews flocked to Vienna, where they were discriminated against, yet geniuses like Einstein and Freud emerged and flourished, although both were forced to leave, eventually.

Making/seeing connections between elements that seemingly don't go together leads to great creativity. Borrowing ideas across cultures helps to continue to stir the pot of innovation. The Greeks stood at a cross roads where cultures mixed and roiled about, taking the best ideas to incorporate into their philosophy, art, and playwriting. Language shapes creativity as well. The fact that Chinese language is difficult and not based on an alphabet, made developing ideas within their culture more difficult. Conversely, English and German are supple languages. English contains elements of its language from Latin and Germanic roots, and incorporated Asian as well as Amer-Indian vocabulary into its flexible language. German allows its speakers to create appropriate words from others within the speech process. Plato pointed out that “What is honored in a country get cultivated there.” Hence, Greece became the seat for the development of government and philosophy.

Under the Medici family in the 16th century, Florence flourished as a center of art and culture. Florence thrived as a trading city, and Weiner attributes the growth of its power to the development of international currency. During the brief flowering of Florence's great power, a period of around fifty years, art and architecture was encouraged and developed. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others made incomparable contributions to art. Leonardo is used as an example of a great genius who often failed to achieve his goals. Failure and risk are hallmarks of great creativity. Today, in Silcon Valley, which is seen as the center of a great flowering of technological world-changing innovation, many more efforts to develop game-changing ideas into electronic devices and programs for them fail than succeed, but the environment is strongly conducive to a fluid, open society where failure is the result of wide ranging, big thinking but leads to the great next steps that drive it on.

Eric Weiner

Eric Weiner comments, “I’m an author, speaker and former correspondent for NPR, but I prefer to think of myself as a philosophical traveler. My interest—my obsession, really—is the intersection of places and ideas. It is at this intersection, I believe, where the most fascinating aspects of life unfold, be it our search for happiness, spiritual fulfillment or creative expression.” He is the author of Man Seeks God and The Geography of Bliss, both books incorporating his obsession with travel and ideas. He has reported from over 30 countries. Weiner writes a travel column for BBC and his essays and commentary have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New Republic, and many other publications. . While with NPR, he has also served as a correspondent in New York, Miami, and Washington, DC. In his free time he enjoys cycling, playing tennis, and eating sushi. Weiner is married and together he and his wife have one daughter. The family resides in Washington, DC

The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner (Simon & Schuster, 2016, 368 Pages, $26.95/12.99) combines witty, insightful travel writing with the exploration of how locations and time periods lead to great leaps forward in creativity and innovation. By walking extensively through cities which became great cultural and creative centers while spending time with local historians who happen to be interesting characters, too, he seeks to recreate in his own imagination the culture leading to such creativity. He then incorporates smoothly, and with good humor, contemporary studies of the conditions which help creativity to grow and flourish in both individuals and societies. The mix stimulates as it teaches, like the good walks he recommends as stimulative of good thinking. This very readable, amusing, and informative book builds ideas about creativity as it entertains. I read The Geography of Genius as an electronic galley supplied by the publisher through Edelweiss on my Kindle app.