STARRED REVIEW
January 05, 2016

The settings that spawn brilliance

By Eric Weiner
Review by
Journalist and globe-trotter Eric Weiner, perhaps best-known for his bestselling book The Geography of Bliss, continues his pursuit of big questions in The Geography of Genius. Why, he wonders, do some conditions give rise to networks of innovators who transform the world? As such a question suggests, Weiner is thinking about genius in a fresh way.
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Journalist and globe-trotter Eric Weiner, perhaps best-known for his bestselling book The Geography of Bliss, continues his pursuit of big questions in The Geography of Genius. Why, he wonders, do some conditions give rise to networks of innovators who transform the world? As such a question suggests, Weiner is thinking about genius in a fresh way. He adroitly sidesteps our cultural myth of the solitary prodigy slaving away in isolation and instead thinks about genius as (always) socially situated, clusters of diamonds shining brightly in their original settings. “Certain places, at certain times, produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and good ideas,” he explains.

Weiner generates a list of such places and times, and that list becomes his (and the reader’s) travel itinerary. From ancient Athens to contemporary Silicon Valley, with stops in China, India and Austria along the way, it’s a pleasurable ride. Like Socrates, Weiner enjoys coming to insights through dialogue, and so readers are introduced to a number of characters with whom he discusses his theories about genius. These interlocutors—whether Tony, who owns Tony’s Hotel in Greece, or Friederike, a “friend of a friend” who hosts a classical music show at a radio station in Vienna—add an immediacy the book. The reader has the sense that the ideas and insights arrived at through this talk are spontaneous. The progression feels natural, which is a pretty neat trick.

The fun, relaxed mode is also maintained when outside scholarship is brought in to help situate and consider a particular genius at hand, for instance, whether or not Beethoven’s messy habits contributed to his musical genius. Turning to research at the University of Minnesota that studied whether research participants came up with more creative ideas in messy environments or clean ones, Weiner manages to illuminate Beethoven through an unlikely blend of scholarship, musings about the popular photograph of Einstein’s chaotic desk and on-the-ground observation in Vienna. Well read, thoughtful and above all curious, Weiner invites the reader to explore a satisfying take on a meaningful topic while also enjoying daily pleasures in cities around the world.

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The Geography of Genius

The Geography of Genius

By Eric Weiner
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781451691658

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