Eric Weiner is not a genius. This he freely admits, lamenting that any notion of becoming the next Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci has “disappeared, along with my hair”.
The inspiration behind traversing the golden ages in search of the recipe for genius comes in the form of his young daughter, whose curiosity and creativity he hopes to encourage by exposing her to a “buffet of intellectual possibilities”.
Travelling to revered places of prominence including Athens, Florence, Edinburgh, Vienna and Silicon Valley, Weiner converses with locals in the know who speculate on the concoction of ingredients that helped produce a flurry of creation, innovation, invention and wonder.
Today, he suggests, we suffer from “genius inflation” – an ailment which sees the label of genius attached to anyone and everyone from tennis players, chefs, and politicians. He has a point – who doesn’t look at their young child convinced that a modern-day Einstein or Mozart gazes back at them?
In his frustration, Weiner sets off to find out what true genius is made of. Athens is an obvious place to begin the search.
The philosopher Plato once said, “Whatever is honoured in a country will be cultivated there.” It seems a lot was honoured in Ancient Greece, given the era’s significant contributions to the world: philosophy, justice, democracy, art and architecture, to name just a few.
In his light, humorous conversational style, the author shines a light on the makeup of Athens in a bid to nail down the principles of genius. He suggests stiff competition, a love for the city, and a life where conditions were less than ideal played a central role in nurturing prodigies to cultivate the golden age of Ancient Greece.
One of my favourite passages comes from Weiner’s exploration of the Scottish Enlightenment, where a young obstetrician discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform by openly serving his dinner guests chloroform instead of wine (Scots will give most things a try at least once).
For James Young Simpson, he was lucky to have given his guests just the right amount: too much and they would have died; too little, and he would have been discouraged from pursuing his hunch.
Simpson was vindicated and made famous following Queen Victoria’s successful use of chloroform during the birth of her son Leopold. It pays to have parties, after all.
The Geography Of Genius is a captivating read, informative yet free from the kind of dry and dense prose that is often found in laborious works exploring bygone eras. Weiner’s follow-up to The Geography Of Bliss is not for anyone who might expect a clinical, academic foray into the nature of genius.
There is, as Weiner points out, no set formula to be found: that genius is made is just as much of a myth as the notion that genius is nurtured. There are a number of social, economic, political and personal factors that come into play, to say nothing of the fortune of timing and luck.
What this book offers is a pleasant, informal journey through the annals of history to the present day, providing insights into the environments of the ages and how genius can often suffer the scorn of irreverence and ridicule, such as Sigmund Freud did during his years in Vienna.
Then again, new ideas are met often with a deluge of criticism and disdain – one aspect of society that remains constant throughout the ages is our collective suspicion of anything that might challenge the status quo.
If you can imagine your best friend as a philosopher who has written an engaging travel book, Weiner’s latest offering fits the bill. I polished off The Geography Of Genius in a few sittings and will certainly read it more than twice.
There are loads of interesting titbits and intriguing stories that illuminate each age within the pages and Weiner lends himself as the reader’s own personal guide, which adds to the warmth of the book. The only criticism I would offer is that, on occasion, he gives too much time to cumbersome details of his encounters with the experts and locals who help him along the way.
Personally, I’d have enjoyed the book more if Weiner had used the extra space to go a little bit deeper into examining the mystery of genius.
Nevertheless, The Geography Of Genius is a captivating tale of golden ages, with copious amounts of humour and warmth, and it serves as a wonderful motivator for the reader to do a little digging themselves into the eras that produced an abundance of timeless genius that continues to inspire and influence us.