Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Geography of Genius - by Eric Weiner

Nine years ago I embarked on a project of reading "Year Of" books. One of the books I read, together with my geographer husband, was Eric Weiner's Geography of Bliss in which the author sought out the world's happiest places. When we discovered that Weiner had written another geography book we downloaded it and listened to it together during our regular drives between Bridgewater and Fairhaven. In The Geography of Genius Weiner visits places that were once hotbeds of creativity, or in the case of Silicon Valley, still are.

Of course libraries are essential elements when discussing genius and Weiner mentions them no fewer than twenty times.

Twice he used the library as a metaphor:

  • In Athens, Greece he decides to take a walk, as was the wont of many of the great thinkers who hailed from that city. His host, Tony, "approves of walking". However, it appears to Weiner that "this approval does not extend beyond the realm of the theoretical as Tony's expanding belly "says more about the divide between ancient and modern Athens than a library's worth of books".
  • It seems that the stereotype of the shushing librarian will be around for quite some time. Weiner uses the image to explain that working in a quiet space may in fact not be conducive to creative thinking. And that it is in fact the moderate noise levels found in coffee houses that make them ideal places to incubate ideas.

Importantly, Weiner also points out that libraries are not just places for books, but for programs and as gathering centers as well when he sees people queuing for a lecture at the National Library in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Libraries weren't always a public resource. Early libraries were by membership or subscription only. Today public libraries are recognized as the People's University. Block printing during the Song Dynasty (969 to 1276 AD) in Hangzhou China brought information to the masses. "Soon, thousands of titles, on all sorts of topics, were published each year. One library alone, at the Imperial Palace, housed some eighty thousand scrolls."

In Calcutta he discusses colonization with this description of Job Charnock - a seventeenth-century English sea captain, who married an Indian woman.
He wore loose, baggy Kurtas, smoked a hookah...and drank the local libation, a potent moonshine called arrack. Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, son a English aristocrats, proud servant of the queen, went native.
That might come as a surprise given our image of the British and their attempts to rule India without interacting with India.
Charnock was the exception to those who agreed with Lord Macaulay "a senior official in the Raj, who infamously said that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia."

The same type of European-superiority thinking is evident in Joshua Hammer's work The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu as well.

Throughout his travels the author sings the praises of several librarians who helped him along the way:
  • In Hangzhou, China a librarian named Norman delivers a difficult-to-find copy of the English translation of Brush Talks from Dream Brook by eleventh-century genius Shen Kuo to Weiner's hotel "with all the furtive intrigue of a drug deal or CIA drop".
  • During a visit to the archives Laurentian Library in Florence (designed by Michelangelo) he speaks with Dr. Shelia Baker who is excited about a recent discovery of a letter written by Galileo to a friend. She also explains that to those who lived in the 15th century a book cost as much in relative terms as a car does today. Books were status symbols. Scholars were people who owned many books (even if they never read them).
  • In the Silicon Valley Archives where he walks "into a majestic room, brimming with wooden cabinets and history" a librarian hands him a cardboard box filled with correspondence from Fred Terman's days at the Harvard Radio Research Laboratory during World War II.
  • And, finally, in the acknowledgements Weiner thanks Kathleen McNamara director of Georgetown University's Mortara Center for providing "that most valuable of gifts: a library card."
Smart people use libraries.

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