Book Club, History, Nonfiction, Sociology

The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Places

It’s another Nonfiction Book Club selection! We discussed this one at the end of August and embarrassingly, I had not finished it by the time we discussed it so I’m a bit behind in posting my review today.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Bestselling author Eric Weiner is no genius. He readily concedes that the chances of sudden, Einsteinian brilliance descending upon him are are slim. But there’s still hope for his young daughter. So he sets off across the globe and back through history to examine how creative genius flourishes in specific places at specific times, hoping to nourish a culture of creativity in his own home. Along the way, he learns why geniuses thrive in chaos, why we often do our best thinking while walking, how constraints actually drive creativity, and how oysters played a pivotal role in the Scottish Enlightenment. From ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, he brings his trademark humor and insight to one urgent question: What was in the water, and can we bottle it?

Review

Recently I’ve had a hard time finishing my book club books. Not because they’re bad, or uninteresting, it’s just that I’ve finally started to crave fiction on a regular basis again after many years. I used to just need a fiction palette cleanser and then I would go right back to my nonfiction loves, but this time the fiction bug, particularly for historical fiction, has been sticking around a lot longer than usual.

But The Geography of Genius was a book that I had put forth to the book club to vote on, so I was starting to feel very embarrassed about the lack of progress I was making on it the closer we got to the meeting time. It wasn’t that I found it boring, or lacking, it just wasn’t what I wanted. Leave it to me to start a nonfiction book club then decide I don’t want to read nonfiction anymore…

I do, however, appreciate being directed back into the genre, especially for a sociology book. Sociology is my favorite of the seven social sciences, the social sciences I had to study in great depth and detail to be a social studies teacher (though please, some explain to me how math-based economics is a social science. Please.) For those who don’t really know what sociology is, it’s the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society. And it is fascinating. Currently in the bookstore our sociology section is full of feminist works (which, yay) but it leads to an assumed definition of the genre that is often missing the full scope of its focus.

While I could argue that The Geography of Genius is in fact a crucial book regarding women’s studies, that’s not really the point of this review today (Eric notes that historically all “geniuses” were men because women often weren’t afforded the same opportunities to explore their genius – and that shall be the topic of an essay for a different day). Mainly, I want to talk about bias.

Eric is a white, straight, middle aged American man, and boy does it show. In a similar manner to Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity, he sets off on a quest to learn more about different definitions and interpretations of genius throughout history and across various cultures and continents, but he cannot break out of his Western-obsessed ideology. He has adopted his daughter from Kazakhstan and doesn’t even consider going there to determine if there is some pocket of Kazakh genius that his Western-society based research didn’t yield. He goes to India and focuses solely on English speaking white people who went there and happened to be geniuses. And for the most part, he focuses on Europe, from Ancient Greece to Enlightment era Venice and Edinburgh.

Which I love. I’m obsessed with all things Scotland, and while writing about Vienna’s musicians, Eric actually talks about Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna, who I am always looking for more information on. But I didn’t really need this book to tell me that Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven were geniuses. I knew that, and I think most people do as well. The Scottish chapter is probably enlightening for most, but I’ve spent hours in the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh where you can find all the inventions Eric details. I wanted to learn something new.

And I didn’t. Not really. I disagree with calling Silicon Valley a contemporary hotbed of geniuses, and I found myself continuously referencing Anna Weiner’s memoir during our discussion of that particular chapter. I was, ultimately, disappointed. There were some bright spots and glimpses of promise, but ultimately, this is another Western-centric approach to defining and recognizing merit.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon. Click the image below to add the book to your Goodreads TBR!

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