Book Review: The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places From Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley by Eric Weiner

This is a much better book than its predecessor, The Geography of Bliss.  For one thing, the author deals with fewer locations than in the previous book, which allows him to explore them in more depth.  For another, he does enough research and invests enough thought to come to deeper conclusions.  The first book was obviously a lark; the author flitted from place to place, wrote a few surface level observances, and never really tried to explore the subject that was the supposed theme of his journey.  This time, he takes the subject of genius seriously.

I still object to his methods, which are very conventional, and consist mostly of calling up a few supposed experts and interviewing them over coffee, tea, alcoholic beverages, or meals.  Sometimes he visits a museum or some other historic location to see what he can see.  It’s still surface level.  Nevertheless, as I said, because he focuses his attention better in this book, it is sharper, more reasoned, and occasionally even dabbles in profundity.

He begins his quest for the secrets of genius in Athens, where in ancient times a brief but powerful explosion of creativity changed the western world. He explores the dynamics of the city that produced Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other thinkers who helped shape modern thought. Although ancient Athens was filthy and there was little difference between the abodes of the rich and the poor, the cultural dynamic led to its citizenry devoting extreme amounts of intellectual energy in its honor.  During a brief period of peace between wars, people flocked to Athens as a hub of learning.  It offered freedom of speech, open debate, and the wealth to realize grand projects such as the Parthenon.

From Athens, the author moves on to Hangzhou, China, where during the Song Dynasty another intellectual revolution occurred. During this era, the Chinese greatly valued artistic achievements.  Even the emperors valued their skills as poets as greatly as their skills as statesmen.

From China, Weiner moves on to Florence and explores the erstwhile hangouts of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other esteemed artists of the Renaissance, pointing out that the city’s unique placement in history, its political structure, and its patronage system made it a fertile hotbed for genius.  Sometimes I wonder, however, if Weiner exaggerates situation for the sake of a laugh, for he describes Florence as a city festering in the midst of putrid swampland, whereas I remember it from my travels as placed in a gorgeous setting surrounded by hills in the midst of Tuscan countryside.  Perhaps it’s simply a matter of perspective.

Next the author moves up north to Scotland and investigates the cultural renaissance that the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith, and others instigated in the eighteenth century.

I was particularly pleased to see that Weiner made a journey to Calcutta and included its eruption of genius during the British Raj.  This was epitomized by Rabindranath Tagore, who the author calls the renaissance man of Calcutta.  I’ve lived in West Bengal, both in Calcutta and in the university township that Tagore created to the north at Santiniketan, and his influence on Bengali culture is inestimable.  He won the Nobel Prize for literature for his poetic work Gitanjali, but my favorites among his works are his short stories.  He was a pioneer of the short story in Bengali, and his stories are still readable today as brilliant examples of the form.

Vienna is the only location that gets two chapters, as Weiner first explores the musical renaissance epitomized by Mozart and Beethoven, and then describes the later intellectual bloom exemplified by Sigmund Freud.

The author’s last visit is to Silicon Valley, which seems to befuddle him.  Maybe because it’s so new and still ongoing, he can’t really come up with a rational explanation for its success as a hotbed of geniuses.

All in all, the book is entertaining, and as I mentioned before, the author manages to come up with more insightful hypotheses than he did in the previous one.  However, the problem remains that he simply tosses possibilities out to see which ones stick and makes no attempt, or at least little attempt, to consolidate what he has discovered.  I would have appreciated one final chapter in which he draws conclusions based upon his observations.  As it is, he leaves it to the reader, for the most part, to figure out how the experiences he has and the research he summarizes all fit together.

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