The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley

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Release Date: 
January 5, 2016
Simon & Schuster
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Plato asserted that “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” If so,  it could be argued that the U.S.A. today honors computers, social media, and the iPhone. These life-altering communications breakthroughs required a socio-cultural milieu hospitable to applied technological innovation—a Mecca for a critical mass of ingenious people driven to tinker with smart technology. California’s Silicon Valley was born.

In The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, acclaimed travel writer Eric Weiner embarks on an odyssey to show how creative genius—defined as the new, surprising, and valuable—flourishes in certain places in certain epochs.

These outbreaks of genius are not randomly scattered, but tend to crop up in clusters bounded by space and time. Think hot spots of symbiotic snowballing inspiration extending over a short-lived golden age, be it in art, intellectual discourse, literature, music, science, movies, or digital technology.

Weiner probes the connections between our environs and these incubations of innovative ideas in the hope of uncovering why golden ages of genius happened when and where they did. Instead of asking what is creativity, we should be looking for where it occurred and examining the underlying cultural conditions that triggered it.

We accompany Weiner on his exploration of the geography of genius to ancient Athens, Song Dynasty Hangzhou, Renaissance Florence, Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, the Calcutta of the Bengal Renaissance, Vienna from Mozart to Freud, and in our own time, Silicon Valley.

At each port of call, we walk the same paths as the geniuses who flourished in these settings in search of traces of the spirit that inspired figures such as Socrates, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Beethoven, and Hume, as well as lesser-known (to us) names in Chinese and Indian history. “What was in the air and can we bottle it?”

Drawing on extensive research, interviews with leading scholars, local intelligentsia, and tour guides, chance conversations, keen participant observation, and many miscellaneous anecdotes, Weiner presents a mélange of travelogue, quasi-geographical study, historical biography, and comic diary. The outcome is more of a ramble through time and place rather than a focused and authoritative investigation. Nonetheless, a number of insights emerge around the intersection of culture, location, and fortuitous timing in creative space.

Ancient Athenians enjoyed their Mediterranean climate, so conducive to outdoor public life encouraging intellectual dialogue fueled by copious quantities of diluted wine.

“They lived in profoundly insecure times, and rather than retreat behind walls . . . the Athenians bear-hugged that uncertainty . . . remaining open in every way, even when prudence might dictate otherwise. This openness made Athens Athens. Openness to foreign goods, odd people, strange ideas.”

The Golden Age of the Song Dynasty was marked by gradual incremental innovation rather than sudden breakthroughs: “While Europeans were busy picking lice out of their hair and wondering when the Middle Ages would ever end, the Chinese were busy inventing, discovering, writing, printing, and, in general, improving the human condition.” Is this because these highly creative people embraced tradition rather than discarding it in the name of progress?

Genius in wealthy Renaissance Florence was predicated on patronage—both from wealthy supporters of the arts and from an overall culture that valued beautiful things while adhering to a tradition of risk. Perhaps risk and creative genius are inseparable?

A good example is Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel:

“Michelangelo was best known as a sculptor, not a painter . . . Yet Pope Julius II chose Michelangelo for the job. The Pope was adhering to the Medici philosophy of patronage: choose someone who is clearly talented, then assign him an impossible task—do so even if he seems like a bad fit, especially if he seems like a bad fit.”

From dour Enlightenment Edinburgh, we learn that genius embraces pragmatism, especially after the creative pool was enlarged by the massive public literacy campaign spearheaded by the Scottish Presbyterian Church such that even ordinary people had access to books:

“If you’ve ever flushed a toilet or used a refrigerator or rode a bicycle, thank the Scots. If you’ve ever received an injection from a hypodermic needle or had surgery and didn’t feel a thing, you can thank the Scots.”

In Calcutta under the Raj, we see how genius thrives in chaos, wherein Indians resisted assimilation by creating a vibrant hybrid culture that was both functionally and intellectually creative. “British colonialists spread literacy in India thinking they would get a city of clerks. Instead, they got a city of poets.”

Meanwhile, Vienna managed a rare double dip of genius with two golden ages, though these may be flip sides of the same coin, a little delayed.

“First, in roughly 1800, a musical flourishing brought us Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, and the wunderkind Mozart. Then, a century later, a much broader explosion of genius touched every field imaginable—science, psychology, art, literature, architecture, philosophy, and, once again music.” Mozart epitomized the former and Freud the latter.

The musical florescence owed much to Emperor Joseph’s patronage as well as to a highly appreciative and collaborative audience. The second phase emerged from the convergence of migrant intellectuals and artists, including many Jews like Freud, from every corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These outsiders fed off each others’ creative energy, cross-fertilizing in third places such as the renowned Viennese coffee houses.

Lastly Weiner brings us home to Central California’s rolling farmland and suburban sprawl, where, arguably, the most game-changing genius cluster of all took root and is still evolving—Silicon Valley. Here, a rather different type of genius technokinds (jean-clad IT prodigies) became overnight household names from borrowing, adapting, and re-packaging the ideas of others. “These innovations changed not only how we talk to each other, but what we say.”

Paradoxically, these prophets of the death of place—in the Internet age we can live and work anywhere—still require proximity to each other to feed their genius.

At the end of The Geography of Genius, we are left with more questions than answers, as the book is more about the journey itself and the process of uncovering connections than the findings. But for the most part these questions are heuristic and good to ponder.

Weiner summarizes these key elements as the Three Ds: disorder, diversity, and discernment. Disorder shakes up the status quo, creating a space for new ways of thinking and doing. Diversity contributes to not only different ways of connecting the dots, but different kinds of dots. Discernment is the critical ability to assess both progress and failure, to tell good ideas from bad, and to be able to build on the latter.

Many readers will find that the Geography of Genius offers an enjoyable and thought-provoking journey with Weiner as a charming tour guide in the style of Bill Bryson and Anthony Bourdain. His lively, witty, and accessible style draws people in, and he educates while he entertains.

But this folksy meandering approach will likely irritate some readers, who would rather he got to the point, while the ambitious scope, of necessity, results in a somewhat superficial treatment.