Subject of Genius
I suspect that every parent secretly hopes that their child turns out to be a genius. Be careful what you wish for. Geniuses have changed the world, but their lives often not easy. Here are some attributes of genius Eric Weiner talks about in his book “The Geography of Genius:”
*Many of them had difficult childhoods. A disproportionate number of geniuses lost a parent, usually a father, at a young age. As the great John Adams, our second president and possibly a genius himself, said: “genius is sorrow’s child.”
*They were often ostracized from society, or society failed to recognize their enormous accomplishments.
*They are extremely industrious, but that quality is sometimes paired with insanity, probably what we today would call bipolar syndrome. Just think about Van Gogh, who cranked out masterpiece after masterpiece but was desperately lonely and cut off his ear.
And yet, geniuses have hatched many of the ideas that have taken mankind out of the cave and into the 21st century. Here are some books about troubled geniuses who battled many demons, but still left their mark on science, economics, literature, technology and music:
It’s back to the 18th century for Longitude, The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. This is the true story of John Harrison, a self-taught clock maker from Yorkshire, who solved a problem that had plagued sailors for centuries – he figured out how to use a chronometer (clock) to determine longitude at sea. Latitude was relatively easy to figure out, because you could use the son’s position in the sky at noon (don’t ask me how to do this). Longititude was much harder, and sailors often found themselves hundreds of miles from where they thought they were. Not good.
So, after a lot of shipwrecks, the British government established a prize to be awarded to whoever could figure out longitude, and Harrison traveled down from Yorkshire with his invention. Did he get the credit? He did not – the committee of white-wigged snobs charged with awarding the prize just couldn’t accept that a humble Yorkshire clockmaker had figured out the problem. But another genius characteristic Harrison had was sheer tenaciousness. You’ll have to read the book to figure out what happened, or watch the wonderful movie based on the book.
Next up, one of most moving books I have ever read – A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar, the biography of John Nash, who won the Nobel Prize for economics.
Nash was a mathematical prodigy who was a legend by the age of 30. Then he started to lose his mind. He could not sort ideas from reality – he took the notion that extraterrestrials were sending him messages just as seriously as he did his flashes of insight into higher math.
He might have become a permanent fixture in some mental asylum, except for two things. His wife stuck by him. And the community of scholars around him at Princeton put up with his extremely odd and at times self-destructive behavior until he emerged on the other side of his madness, eventually winning the Nobel for his discovery of game theory. If you don’t have a lump in your throat after reading this book or watching the movie starring Russell Crowe as Nash, you are a tougher nut than I am.
On to literature, a field thick with troubled geniuses. Last year I read a great biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr, the drama critic for the New Yorker.
What a book! Lahr details every aspect of America’s greatest playwright, from his tormented Southern-style upbringing to the creation and production of his plays like “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” So many great characters inhabit this book – the flamboyant actors and actresses that brought Williams’ characters to life, the lovers and drugs Williams ran through as if there were no tomorrow. He was a tormented man, but he mined his torment for the creative content of his plays, poems and essays, until his own brilliance eventually consumed him.
In the field of technology, there’s Steve Jobs, the biography of the founder of Apple by Walter Isaacson.
Jobs was a take-no-prisoners genius. He was adopted by a loving couple, but he rebelled against his adopted parents and was contemptuous towards his biological ones. He was tenacious in building the empire of Apple. But his passion for perfection drove his colleagues nuts.
There’s almost no field of consumer technology Jobs did not influence – personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, digital publishing. Jobs authorized this biography when he knew he was going to eventually die of cancer, and he opened his life to Isaacson, a much honored biographer and journalist. At the end of this book you may not like Steve Jobs, but you will certainly understand him.
Finally – music. Usually, I see the film after I’ve read the book, but in this case I was introduced to the topic of blues singer Nina Simone through a great film documentary of her life – you can get it on Netflix.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” takes its title from a poem by Maya Angelou. The question might well be turned on its ear – what DIDN’T happen to Nina Simone?
Nina Simone was a musical prodigy, a little black girl raised in the segregated South and trained as a classical pianist. Her race hobbled her. She was turned down for admission at the prestigious Curtis School for music in Philadelphia, and had to resort to playing in Atlantic City piano bars to support her family. She married an ex-New York City cop, who both managed her career and beat her.
Simone was swept up by the Black Power movement in the 1960s. Devastated by the death of Martin Luther King Jr., she became the songwriter for the Black Power movement, performing anthems of violence and retaliation against white society.
Nina Simone suffered from what we now know as bipolar disorder. She left America and spiraled downward until she eventually received help from medication and some very loyal friends, and continued to sing until the end of her life. Book or movie? In this case I have to give the nod to the movie, because there you will hear her thrilling voice, unlike any I have ever heard.