The Geography of Genius: A book review by Bob Morris

Geography of GeniusThe Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley
Eric Weiner
Simon & Schuster (2016)

How and why “certain places, at certain times, produce a bumper crop of brilliant minds and good ideas. The question is why.”

As I began to read this immensely entertaining as well as highly informative book, I was again reminded of picaresque novels such as Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, pilgrimages such as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and journeys of discovery such William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways and Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island and The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain. Eric Weiner incorporates elements of these genres while sharing his efforts to locate “the world’s most creative places from ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.”

The word “genius” has been so widely and shallowly applied that it now means whatever those who use it think it means. Weiner is speaking of genius “in the creative sense — as the highest form of creativity. My favorite definition of creative genius comes from the researcher and artificial intelligence expert Margaret Boden. The creative genius, she says, is someone with ‘the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable.’” Rather than asking “What is creativity?” however, Weiner suggests that a much better question is “Where is creativity?” That is, in which cultural environments throughout history was creativity most likely to thrive? Why? And what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from each? What he learned is best revealed within his narrative, in context.

Weiner explains, “I’ve selected six historic places of genius, as well as one current one. Some are huge metropolises, such as Vienna of 1900; others, such as Renaissance Florence, are tiny by modern standards. one, such as ancient Athens, are well-known; others such as nineteenth-century Calcutta, less so. Each of these places, though, represented an apex of achievement.” Add Hangzhou. Edinburgh, and Silicon Valley to that covey of seven locations. “Like all cultures, family culture can either cultivate creativity or squelch it…Creativity, like charity, begins at home. As I set out on my journey [accompanied by his reader], one in which I will traverse continents and centuries, I vow to keep this important truth in mind.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Weiner’s coverage:

o Genius and Geniuses (Pages 2-3, 8-9, 17-18, 68-69, 84-85, 126-127, 148-149, and 287-288)
o Florence (7-9, 97-109, 112-139, 295-296, 318-319, and 323-325)
o Creativity (7-11, 103-104, 113-114, 161-168, 274-278, and 323-326)
o Greece (13-18, 40-41, 43-52, and 54-63)
o Athens (15-17, 19-34, 43-63, 86-87, 116-117, 156-157, 318-319, and 323-326)
o Socrates (19-20, 31-34, 36-38, 61-62, 48-49, and 324-325)
o Scotland (42-43, 142-=153, 153-159, 165-169, and 171-183)
o Hangzhou (65-75, 87-89, and 318-319)
o China (68-75, 77-80, 82-95, 288-289, and 317-318)
o Great Britain (75-79 82-83, and 253-254)
o Florence and the Arts (97-100, 102-104, 118-121, 123-125, 129-130, and 133-138)
o Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance (111-114 and 125-126)
o Edinburgh (141-144, 146-170, 172-174, 178-182, 193-194, and 318-319)
o Calcutta (185-195, 201-205, and 210-215)
o India (186-195 and 201-207)
o Culture (196-197 and 246-248)
o Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (221-229 and 236-240)
o Vienna (226-239, 251-267, and 276-285)
o Environment (229-230, 236-238, and 280-281)
o Ludwig von Beethoven (234-239 and 241-246)
o Sigmund Freud (239-278)
o Ethnic diversity and creativity (256-257)
o Silicon Valley (288-319)

Weiner observes, “For me, cafés are a kind of second home, a prime example of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls a ‘great good place.’ The food and rink are nearly irrelevant, or nearly so. What matters is the atmosphere — not the table cloths or the furniture but a more tangible ambience, once that encourages guilt-free lingering and strikes just the right balance of background din and contemplative silence.” Obviously, he could not return in time and roam such gathering places in six of the locations but he could — and did — gain a clearer sense of what could roughly be characterized as “the soul” of each. In Athens, for example, the “great good place” he found is The Bridge. “An appropriate name, I decide, since I’m attempting the quixotic task of bridging the centuries.” He eventually found the answer to what he characterizes as “the Great Greek Mystery”: What made this place shine? In fact, there are different answers in the other locations but they also share much in common. What? Read the book. Again, details are best revealed within the narrative, in context.

Ever since Francis Galton coined the term “nature versus nurture,” people have debated the relative merits of each. Weiner’s response? “It’s a silly argument, and unnecessary. Creativity doesn’t happen ‘in here’ or ‘out there’ but in the spaces in between. Creativity is a relationship, one that unfolds at the intersection of person and place. This intersection, like all such crossroads, is a dangerous, unforgiving place. You have to pay attention, slow down, and stay alert for the idiots out there. It’s worth the risk, though, for the humble intersection, be it in ancient Athens or a strip-mall Sunnyvale, is the true genius loci. The place where genius lives.”

Many years ago, one of the French Romantic poets (probably Baudelaire) was asked how to write a poem. He paused for several thoughtful moments, then replied “Draw a birdcage and leave the door open. Then you wait. You may have to wait for quite a while. Be patient. Eventually, if you’re very lucky, a bird will fly in the door. Then you erase the cage.” I was reminded of that anecdote as I read Eric Weiner’s brilliant book, especially his comments about the “intersection” at which a genius and a place are combined. My own opinion is, if those whom we regard as a genius today were to be relocated to ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence, or if Pericles and Leonardo da Vinci were relocated to Silicon Valley, we would still include them among those who possess “the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable.”

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