Where to find innovators.
In the genial style of Bill Bryson, Weiner (Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, 2011, etc.) scouts the world looking for places that have spawned geniuses. Rejecting the “geniuses-are-born myth,” he learns from one psychology professor that geniuses “do not pop up randomly—but in groupings….Certain places, at certain times, produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and good ideas.” Brilliant minds and good ideas are not quite the same as genius, but what Weiner is searching for, it turns out, are places where creativity has flourished. He identifies seven, of which a few are not surprising: Athens at the time of Socrates; Florence during the Renaissance; Mozart’s and Freud’s Vienna; and, in our own time, Silicon Valley. Added to these are Hangzhou, China, during the Song Dynasty, from 969 to 1276; the dour city of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment; and Calcutta, from 1840 to 1920, a period known as the Bengal Renaissance. Weiner is eager to find commonalities among these disparate sites, and of course, he does. Places of genius, he writes, “occupy the center of various cultural currents.” In Calcutta, where cooking, eating, defecating, and urinating all occur in public, the author was struck by the idea that life “lived so publicly increases the amount and variety of stimulation we’re exposed to.” Stimulation is good for creativity, as is “political intrigue, turmoil, and uncertainty.” And intimacy: people inhabiting small places “are more likely to ask questions, and questions are the building blocks of genius.” Intimacy also fosters cross-fertilization of ideas and challenging banter. Woe to a community that becomes complacent or vulnerable to “creeping vanity….Bling has reared its shiny head” in Silicon Valley, Weiner warns, “and that is never a good sign.” After all his travels, the author distills his findings to “the Three Ds: disorder, diversity, and discernment.”
A somewhat superficial yet entertaining romp.