Thursday, January 5, 2017
The Whimsical Brilliance of the Geography of Genius
It was amusingly in an airport bookstore that I ran across Eric Weiner's engaging book The Geography of Genius. One of the perks of travel - of going new places - is the chance to encounter something unexpected and open up a new pathway to knowledge, insight, even bliss. Weiner's book is about his "search for the world's most creative places, from ancient Athens to Silicon Valley," and he operates from the idea that there are special qualities or factors that led a surge of creative thinking and genius resulting in a "renaissance." It's a good question - why does a renaissance happen with the seemingly fortuitious congregation of great minds and achievements in small locales at specific places in time?
Eric Weiner has the gift of engaging storytelling as his hook, and he has the sharp mind of an astute researcher who can ask the right questions, engage the right people, and spot or synthesize the right trends. Those are the keys to successful educators - which he clearly is - and "ideas gurus" whose writing has become a sub-genre of the non-fiction world. What I enjoyed most about this book are the names and connections that inspire me to seek more information. While we all know a bit about Socrates and the basics of Greek philosophy (or at least about Athens as the epicenter of philosophy and democracy), Weiner's descriptions of the factors and relationships lead a reader to want to know more - to deepen and synthesize our knowledge and understanding of these great men. The chapter on Edinburgh offers a thoughtful introduction to one of the great Age of Reason writers and thinkers that far too many people don't know about - David Hume. It was the Hume story - and all the little connections my mind made to other ideas I knew or wanted to know - which convinced me this book was a keeper. It would be one to go on the shelf as a resource when I was looking for something or someone new to learn about. And it would hopefully inspire my own creativity and my little personal renaissance from time to time.
The insight of this book is best summed up by Weiner in the words of Socrates - "What is honored in a country will be cultivated there." Throughout Weiner's travels - and that's the best part of the book: he visits the places and gets down and dirty with the locals - Weiner identifies various keys to geographical creative flourishes. By visiting the countries/cities/regions of Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and Silicon Valley, he is able to identify how the chaotic nature of one place or the collaborative quality of another cultivated genius. These places tend to host little hotbeds of discussion or dissent in cafes, botegas, coffeehouses, symposiums, libraries, addas, and more. The places within the places are often the true secret to a renaissance. And in describing who hangs out in these places mulling their ideas, Weiner's book has the added benefit of introducing readers to even more examples of true genuises than they thought they knew - from Thucydides to Hewlett & Packard.
The final insight is a fun one - he places his quest against the one place we know best - our homes - and he encourages all of us to take the lessons of geographical genius and try to cultivate them in our own geography.