Eric Weiner’s first book, The Geography of Bliss, found him in search of the happiest places on Earth. Now, in The Geography of Genius, he looks for creative hotbeds where geniuses from Socrates to Steve Jobs thrived, and asks why. Moreover, why do these hotbeds eventually fizzle? The book—an irreverent and surprisingly entertaining blend of historical biography, travel essay, and sociological study—centers around this quote by Plato: “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there,” be it intellectual discourse, art, music, literature, or life-altering gadgets like the iPhone. In the process of determining the conditions by which golden ages of genius happened when and where they did, Weiner also uncovers intriguing anecdotes that serve to illuminate and humanize god-like “characters” like Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Freud. He likewise stumbles upon answers to compelling questions like, why does genius seem like such a boy’s club? I am one of those people who dog-ear pages that contain things I find particularly interesting, and few pages of this book remained intact. There are enough fascinating and fun factoids in The Geography of Genius to keep you supplied at cocktail parties and around water coolers for years. But aside from that, it documents a moving quest that wasn’t undertaken just to satisfy a journalist’s curiosity. Weiner is a father and while it’s supposedly “too late for him,” his young daughter can still reap the lessons he learned from his travels, from defining genius, and apply them to her life. I would argue it isn’t too late for any of us.
In The Geography of Genius, acclaimed travel writer Weiner sets out to examine the connection between our surroundings and our most innovative ideas. 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. And, with his trademark insightful humor, he 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?”
This link can be traced back through history: Darwin’s theory of evolution gelled while he was riding in a carriage. Freud did his best thinking at this favorite coffee house. Beethoven, like many geniuses, preferred long walks in the woods.
Sharp and provocative, The Geography of Genius redefines the argument about how genius came to be. His reevaluation of the importance of culture in nurturing creativity is an informed romp through history that will surely jumpstart a national conversation.
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