Review: ‘The Geography of Genius’ by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Genius; A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. Eric Weiner. Simon and Shuster. 368 pages. $26.95.
The Geography of Genius; A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. Eric Weiner. Simon and Shuster. 368 pages. $26.95.

While the wisdom of choosing a president based on whom you’d like to have a beer with is clearly questionable, that same measure holds up pretty well when selecting authors. Eric Weiner — smart yet funny, engaging but also down-to-earth — seems like a good candidate.

In The Geography of Genius, Weiner — who appears Wednesday at Books & Books in Coral Gables — is fun and thought provoking and often self-deprecating (he begins by explaining exactly why he has never been a genius). But this isn’t a cocktail party of a book. Weiner, also author of The Geography of Bliss, sets out to find the magic sauce that explains why “certain places, at certain times produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and good ideas.”

What sets Athens of 450 BC apart from Wichita of last year? Why didn’t Silicon Valley spring up in the Rhine Valley? In looking for the unique aspects of certain places and times that produced an unusual number of geniuses, Weiner delves into the scientific research on creativity, exploring questions like whether teaching creativity or creating a culture of creativity is possible. He relies heavily on anecdotes and observations to explain the particular zeitgeist of genius times.

Summing up what Weiner discovers isn’t easy, and he doesn’t try. He explores the Athens of Socrates, the Silicon Valley of today, the Florence of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, the Vienna of Mozart and then later of Freud, the Song Dynasty of Hangzhou, China, Edinburgh’s Scottish Enlightenment and the Bengal Renaissance in Calcutta. What he finds is that some of those places shared some traits, but there is no magic recipe to foster creative fertility.

For example, the Ancient Greeks valued physical fitness and walked a lot. Meanwhile, researchers have found that walkers are twice as creative, by one measure, than sitters. And writers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain walked.

Then there was the drinking. The Greeks liked their wine. Weiner finds a study that suggests that being moderately drunk — just under the legal limit to drive — made volunteers at the University of Illinois perform better on creativity tests (and probably made them happy not to be in the sober control group). Some of the great writers, including Winston Churchill and William Faulkner, have credited alcohol as their muse.

So, more walking and more wine. But here’s the thing: The Greeks diluted the wine served at their symposia. The Scots also drank quite a lot during the Scottish Enlightenment. Alas, they also watered it down.

“The Scots may have been drunk, but they were no fools,” Weiner notes. “Like their heroes, the ancient Greeks, they knew a little bit of wine makes you more creative but a lot makes you fall down.”

So not too much more wine. OK, maybe Weiner wouldn’t be that much fun to share a drink with. But he does find other fascinating threads to weave a story around genius loci.

Money is important, but it must be money that comes with the expectation of creative freedom, like the enlightened patronage of the Medicis or Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists, with their tolerance for failure. Education can be important, especially if it is based on meritocracy, like the rigorous exams that replaced nepotism in Hangzhou, China. Education also works if it seeks to educate a broad swath of the population, like the parish schools that sprang up all over Scotland, set up by the Scottish Presbyterian Church so that everyone, not just the elites, could read the Bible.

“In the beginning, there was the Word. The Word was good, but hardly anyone could read the Word, or any word. This was frustrating for all,” Weiner writes. “What the Church didn’t count on, though, was that people could also read other words. This is how technologies work. Once unleashed, they cannot be contained. The Church teaches people to read so they can read the Bible, and next thing you know everyone’s reading Milton and Dante. A group of nerdy scientists concoct a computer network so they can share technical data, and next thing you know you’re buying underwear online.”

Oceans away, the British Raj endeavored to create a literate workforce, with similarly unforeseen consequences. “Just as Scottish Church officials spread literacy thinking they would get a nation of Bible readers, British colonialists spread literacy in India thinking they would get a city of clerks,” Weiner writes. “Instead, they got a city of poets.”

There are other ingredients in the genius sauce. Freedom is clearly key, though democracy is not. Chaos can help, but peace is also crucial. Great thinkers sometimes congregate, feeding off of each other. Among them, competition can be important.

As a lesson for our specific time and place, Weiner’s most important point is perhaps that exposure to different cultures combined with an openness to those differences seems to have influenced each of the genius places he explores. The capital of the Song Dynasty, Hangzhou, on the Silk Road, was a giant market of goods and ideas. Florence was buttressed by the ideas brought to town by its army of traveling merchants. The Bengal Renaissance erupted out of the cultural exchange of Western and Eastern ideas under the British Raj. An unusual number of American Nobel Prize winners and Silicon Valley startup founders have been first- or second-generation immigrants. Vienna and Athens were cultural crossroads.

“Athens embraced not only foreign goods and ideas,” he writes. “It also welcomed foreigners themselves. They were free to roam the city, even during time of war, an admittedly risky policy, as Pericles himself acknowledged, ‘the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit from our liberality.’”

“The Spartans, by comparison, walled themselves off from the world, and nothing kills creativity faster than walls.”

Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.

Meet the author

Who: Eric Weiner

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Info: 305-442-4408 or