The Geography of Genius

"True genius is inexhaustible," writes Eric Weiner, "the ghosts of Michelangelo and Leonardo and Botticelli and all the rest hang in the air, like a San Francisco fo­g. You'd think it would have burned off by now, five hundred years later, but it hasn't." In his new work of popular journalism, The Geography of Genius, the former NPR correspondent explores seven world cities and explains how genius loci (the spirit of the place) fostered great human achievement. Inspired by the golden ages of ancient Athens, Song-Dynasty Hangzhou, Renaissance Florence, 1700s Edinburgh, 19th-century Calcutta, 1900 Vienna and today's Silicon Valley, Weiner provides vivid descriptions of what these places are like today.

A personable, down-to-earth narrator, Weiner earns more than a few chuckles. Yet central to his narrative is the serious science of historiometrics, using statistics to map the "where" of genius. "Geniuses do not pop up randomly," he explains. "Certain places, at certain times, produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and good ideas." Eventually, these personalities embody the places they came from. Da Vinci and Michelangelo symbolize Renaissance Florence, Shen Kuo is many people's gateway to the Song Dynasty, Mozart and Beethoven belong to Vienna, Adam Smith and David Hume carry the legacy of Edinburgh's Scottish Enlightenment, Rabindranath Tagore remains the hero of Calcutta's Bengal Renaissance. "Geniuses are not gods," Weiner writes, "and we do both us and them a huge disservice by pretending they are." Rather, he argues, they are highly sensitive and intelligent risk-takers lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Weiner charts the development of each city these prodigies called home, reminding readers that Florence was once a malarial swamp and that, quite recently, Silicon Valley was nothing but California orchards. Weiner also credits the people who helped nurture the talent of young creatives, like the priest in Florence who risked excommunication to help Michelangelo or the workshop owner who took a chance on Da Vinci.

While he never cements a detailed definition of genius, Weiner discovers that the cities he visits do hold something in common, a societal respect for intellectual growth. "What is honored in a country will be cultivated there," he writes, echoing Plato. Exploring customs and cultures for the seeds of creativity, he uncovers the places where ghosts of genius still linger, ready to be encountered by inspired travelers.