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AMERICAN SKETCHES by Walter Isaacson


Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricane

by Walter Isaacson

Pub Date: Nov. 24th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4391-8064-8
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Journalist and biographer Isaacson (Einstein: His Life and Universe, 2007, etc.) on various great Americans.

The author, former managing editor of Time magazine, collects essays and other journalistic pieces focusing on the personalities behind significant figures in American history. Brief, illuminating portraits of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams set the tone, as Isaacson delves into the quirks of temperament that drive history as surely as political forces. The author explores Einstein’s complicated relationship with God, Henry Kissinger’s preoccupation with realpolitik at the expense of “sentimental” ideals and values and Bill Gates’s boyish love of games and competition. Woody Allen’s famous defense of his relationship with his girlfriend’s adopted daughter—“the heart wants what it wants”—occurred in an interview with Isaacson, and the author has interesting things to say on the complex balance of strengths and flaws that complicate the legacy of Bill Clinton. A New Orleans native, Isaacson movingly addresses the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and advises a slow rebuilding approach in order to retain that city’s strange, delicate magic. Other figures profiled include Ronald Reagan, McGeorge Bundy, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. In each piece, Isaacson identifies an essential value or quality in the individual and analyzes the ways in which it influences political policy, social change or scientific or technological advancement. It’s an effectively engaging approach, and the short, punchy essays make their points quickly and sustain interest over the course of the book. A few pieces—such as a remembrance of Time editor Henry Grunwald and a couple of prescient op-ed pieces—feel inessential and a bit self-indulgent, but, on the whole, this is a compelling, highly readable collection of fresh perspectives on some of the most significant names in American history.

A fresh, lucid and lively volume of profiles and analysis.