Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Geography of Genius: A Book Review

Book review written by Melissa Miller

This paper reviews:

Weiner, E. (2016). The geography of genius: A search for the world's most creative places from ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

In the Geography of Genius Eric Weiner travels the world to explore the past in the present time at places where legendary creative geniuses lived. He explores the places where creativity occurred to gain insight into what influences the creative person. This book provides a unique perspective as a historical travel book about creative people and the places where they lived. 

Weiner provided the following quote by Pablo Picasso, which captures the timeless work of the creative geniuses:. “There is no past or future in art. If the work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered art at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not art of the past, perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.” (p. 35). This quote represents the perspective taken by Weiner as he explored in the present time to look into the lives of timeless creative geniuses of the past. 

As Weiner traveled to various cities around the world, he fantasized about what it was like in Athens when Aristotle was alive, Florence during Michelangelo’s time, Calcutta during Bose’s time and many others. He also fantasized about how the geniuses might have responded in a conversation with him.  I am not one for fantasy or rambling speculation and would have greatly appreciated if Weiner would have gotten to the point. Weiner met with an acquaintance living in each city to discuss their perspective on the history of the city and the creative geniuses who called the city home. As Weiner contemplated the daily activities of historical creative geniuses, he stated, “History is the untallied sum of a million everyday moments.” (p. 15).

A main theme of this book is provided by a quote from Plato, “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” (p. 62). Weiner connects the development of the field of medicine in Edinburgh to the development of technology in Silicon Valley to explain that the demand for and/or tolerance of certain types of creativity in an area promotes the development and emergence of specific types of creativity in those areas. This connection provided me with some insight into why certain types of creativity are concentrated in various places. Creativity is more likely to occur in places where ideas are well received. Weiner contends that the creative person must be a good fit with their environment in order to recognize their full potential in their chosen domain, which explains why tech gurus are drawn to Silicon Valley. 

Weiner makes frequent reference to current creativity scholars such as Dean Keith Simonton, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Garder to substantiate some of his speculations about the creative person.  Creative people in creative cities tolerate diversity of thought, diversity of cultures and celebrate ambiguity. Exposure to diversity affords the creative person with opportunities to connect seemingly unrelated things.  Weiner believes imperfect conditions and a level of chaos inspire creativity.  Weiner further explains how we are most innovative when a challenge is present. He makes reference to Michelangelo carving David from a piece of marble that other artists had discarded of as defective to validate his point. The book highlights the link between creativity and openness of the individual to experience, various domains of knowledge, and perseverance in their quest to create. 

Some great quotes from the creative geniuses mentioned in this book include:

“Recognizing your ignorance is the beginning of all wisdom.” Socrates (p. 289)

“If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.” Albert Einstein (p. 158)
“Chance favors the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur (p. 209)

As a student at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, I strongly disagree with Weiner’s perspective on teaching creativity and brainstorming. Weiner stated, “The straightjacket of a curriculum tends to bind the imagination.” (p. 179). He firmly believes creativity cannot be taught and makes no attempt to substantiate his position. Weiner stated, “Brainstorming sounds like a great idea, but it doesn’t work. Dozens of studies have demonstrated this conclusively.” (pp. 254-255). Weiner does not reference a single study to support his opposition to the efficacy of brainstorming and he does not mention Alex Osborn even once in the book. 

I would not recommend this book as a valuable contribution to the field of creativity.  Most of the book consisted of dialog between Weiner and his acquaintances around the world as well as fantasies about what each city he visited might have been like when the creative geniuses were there. It would have been more interesting if Weiner would have substituted his fantasy with relevant information about the cities and the creative geniuses who lived there. 

Melissa Miller is completing her MS in Creativity and Change Leadership at the International Center for Studies in Creativity this semester. Melissa holds the position of nursing lab coordinator for Genesee Community College. Melissa’s background is diverse with years of experience in a variety of domains including healthcare simulation, veterinary, research, academic advising, and counseling. Melissa is an experienced creative problem solving facilitator. Melissa's background includes teaching children, adults and college students in a variety of settings from 1:1 instruction to group instruction and from classroom to experiential settings. Melissa enjoys travel, hiking, scuba diving and photography to capture images of life underwater and on land focusing on plants, animals and natural landscapes.

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