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Chronicling Genius: The Biographies of Walter Isaacson

As Leonardo Da Vinci hits the Blinkist library, we look at Isaacson’s contributions to the art of biography.
by Joshua H. Phelps | Feb 1 2018

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said, referring to self-reflection. But, the question remained, how did one go about this? What tools of examination stood at-hand to guide this inward gaze? Socrates himself, throughout his dialogues, often pointed to specific individuals to illustrate a particular virtue. And nowadays, biographies of famous and infamous personalities can serve a similar purpose.

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One of the great contemporary contributors to our understandings of noteworthy people is Walter Isaacson. A former reporter, Isaacson’s career has also involved leadership roles in print and television media, a nonprofit organization, and now a professorship at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. His written works have tackled heavy subjects from Steve Jobs to Benjamin Franklin. That he will be teaching history at Tulane is a perfect fit, given how he situates his subjects in their broader societal contexts. Why take them on, though? Aren’t we already well-versed in the ins and outs of these lives?

Well, just as we continue to discover artifacts from ancient civilizations, Isaacson’s work has allowed us to gain fresh insight into the individuals he researches. From the thickness of his tomes, too, it is clear that he has put in the time and effort to earn his reputation.

So, if you are curious to learn about what made some of history’s great minds tick, peruse the works below.

Meet The Master

It is hard to describe the mythic status Western culture bestows on Leonardo da Vinci. You can refer to him by only his first name and people will know about whom you are talking. And, certainly, the examinations of his life and work have helped to cement his place in the artistic canon. Isaacson takes advantage of this previous scholarship and da Vinci’s own writings to create a more human image of the artist, covering young da Vinci’s time as an apprentice in Florence and the networking and hobnobbing critical to his success. A moment of humility in his late career also highlights his knowledge of his own limitations.

Witness The Start of the Digital Age

Following on the success of Steve Jobs, Isaacson took a closer look at the pioneers of the digital age. The history of personal computing contains a wealth of colorful personalities, even when one goes back to the 1840s, when Ada Lovelace concocted some of the first ideas that would lead to a revolution in computing. What follows chronicles the creative thinking and collaborative efforts that occurred in places such as Washington, D.C. and the Santa Clara Valley in California before its citrus orchards were cleared and it received its more well-known moniker, Silicon Valley.

From Acid to Apple

For as much time as Steve Jobs spent in the spotlight, the characterizations of him tend to fall along certain broad strokes: Visionary. Irascible. Genius. Dictator. This biography, written with Jobs’s cooperation, illuminates the experiences that shaped his path and teases out more dimensions of his character. For as much as his iconoclasm and curiosity and total involvement in his projects defined the esteemed views Jobs accrued over time, Isaacson’s biography does not shy away from the negative impacts such qualities had.

Rethink the Universe

Just as Leonardo da Vinci’s first name became cultural shorthand, so too did the last name of Albert Einstein. We take Einsteinian thinking for granted to a level it is hard to appreciate how radical his theories were when published at the dawn of the 20th century. Like Isaacson’s previous and subsequent works, his humanistic gift for showing the effects of innate character, time, and place on his subject—in this case the German-speaking portion of Europe during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries—is on full display in Einstein.

The Original American Polymath

Many of Isaacson’s biographies look at figures whose contributions extend across multiple fields. Perhaps there is no better exemplar of such tendencies than Benjamin Franklin. With a curiosity and scrappy, can-do attitude befitting a Horatio Alger hero, he traversed publishing, science, politics, and the self-help industry. It is hard to describe Franklin’s influence on America’s image of itself. After all, he did help to edit some of the papers and pamphlets that are now considered the USA’s founding documents.

As history continues to evolve, we often gain new perspectives on the minds and lives of prominent figures. New writings and stories come to light or an unseen connection becomes suddenly clear. The past has much to teach us. After you’re done with these titles, download the Blinkist app and find more in the history section of the library to pique your interest.

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