An illuminating exploration of the life of the mind and the sometimes-fraught production of art.



A spirited re-creation of the world of the German founders of the post-Enlightenment movement.

Following on her excellent biography of Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, Wulf reconstructs the intellectual circle of the German town of Jena, which Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling, a local “translator, literary critic and muse,” called “the Kingdom of Philosophy.” The reigning spirit of that circle was, perhaps arguably, the eminent writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—arguably because his pals played snarky games behind his back, one calling him an “old worn-out demigod,” and because his real home was nearby Weimar, not Jena. “The Jena Set” would do their squabbling English romantic successors proud: A new argument or schism was always brewing, sometimes over matters of philosophy and sometimes over personality, as with the split between the Schlegel and Schiller clans. “As her dislike grew, Charlotte Schiller began to advise others to fumigate their rooms once Caroline Schlegel had left,” writes Wulf of one episode in the feud, while August Wilhelm Schlegel wrote in a letter to a friend, “People hate us—good! They curse us—even better! They make the sign of the cross to ward us off like blasphemers, Jacobins, and corrupters of youth—God be praised!” For all the rancor, Wulf notes, the productivity of the Jena circle was astounding: dozens of philosophical tomes (especially Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit), natural-history treatises, poems, and, from Goethe, long-in-the-making works such as Faust. Indeed, “The Jena Set’s ideas rippled out from the small town in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar to the wider world,” championed in Britain by Coleridge and Carlyle and by Thoreau and Emerson in the U.S. Many of their fruitful ideas remain: nature as a living thing, art as a way of uniting humans with nature, and, against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, their insistence on individual rights.

An illuminating exploration of the life of the mind and the sometimes-fraught production of art.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-525-65711-8

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, this book should garner serious consideration for a variety of book prizes.

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A majestic biography of “history’s most creative genius.”

With many exceptional popular history books under his belt, Isaacson (History/Tulane Univ.; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, 2014, etc.) is close to assuming the mantle currently held by David McCullough. Here, Isaacson takes on another complex, giant figure and transforms him into someone we can recognize. The author believes the term “genius” is too easily bandied about, but Leonardo (1452-1519), from the tiny village of Vinci, near Florence, was “one of the few people in history who indisputably deserved—or, to be more precise, earned—that appellation.” He was self-taught and “willed his way to his genius.” With joyous zest, Isaacson crafts a marvelously told story “of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical.” Like a child in a candy store, Isaacson often stops to exclaim; he shares his enthusiasm, and it’s contagious. For the author, the starting point are da Vinci’s notebooks, all 7,200 pages, the “greatest record of curiosity ever created.” Da Vinci’s groundbreaking, detailed drawings charted the inner worlds of the skull, heart, muscles, brain, birds’ wings, and a working odometer, along with doodles and numerous to-do lists. In his iconic Vitruvian Man, completed when he was 38 and struggling to learn Latin, “Leonardo peers at himself with furrowed brow and tries to grasp the secrets of his own nature.” Isaacson is equally insightful with the paintings, of which there are few. The Last Supper is a “mix of scientific perspective and theatrical license, of intellect and fantasy.” Regarding the uncompleted Mona Lisa, he writes “never in a painting have motion and emotion, the paired touchstones of Leonardo’s art, been so intertwined.” As Isaacson wisely puts it, we can all learn from Leonardo.

Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, this book should garner serious consideration for a variety of book prizes.

Pub Date: Oct. 17, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5011-3915-4

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2017

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