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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life Paperback – 1 Jan 2003

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Product details

  • Paperback
  • ISBN-10: 0743260848
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743260848
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 17.8 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

More About the Author

Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and of Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.

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First Sentence
His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. Read the first page
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 8 May 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is an absolutely fascinating, beautifully written bio that covers both a man and an epoch. While the prose is extremely dense and well informed, the book never indulges in academic excess or obscure controversies in order to develop a point of view for reasons of career. It is just a great elegant read that completely held my interest from start to finish.

Franklin had an amazing career. He started out as a printer and became America's premier writer as well as a media magnate by his mid-40s, when he essentially retired for the sake of scientific pursuits and later politics and diplomacy. He established his business with energy and audacity, creating numerous personae for himself and indeed an entire philosophy of practical accomplishment and moderation that was later despised as bourgeois. He even pioneered a new way to do autobiography (about entrepreneurship in middle class life rather than a religious or philosophical revelation).

As a scientist, he embodied the Enlightenment, made fundamental discoveries - who can forget kite and key in the storm? - and was feted as one of the great intellectuals of his age in Europe, and even knew Hume, Gibbon, Adam Smith, and other luminaries as personal friends. Isaacson explains his contributions and puts them into context with masterful succinctness, avoiding excessive detail while presenting the essentials. He also used his insights to invent a number of devices, rarely for profit, that are in use today in one form or another (the lightning rod, the indoor stove as opposed to the less-energy efficient fireplace). The contrast with the abstract considerations of scholastics and idealists could not be more stark - he was an empiricist who experimented, not a theorist.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Jukka Mattila on 11 Nov. 2011
Format: Hardcover
Benjamin Franklin, the man who flew his kite into the thunderstorm to study electricity, right? And somehow this same fellow is one of the Founding Fathers of America and signer of the Declaration of Independence? That alone makes an interesting story, and Walter Isaacson's brilliant book tells it vividly.

We don't study a lot of American history in schools where I live (Finland), so although I kind of knew who Benjamin Franklin was I didn't really know a lot about the man. So this has really been an revelation. It's fascinating to think about the long trips accross the Atlantic Franklin made in the service of his country, the life he lived in America and in Europe, the many famous people he knew and met during his life. It's an incredible mix.

I think every country has it's own Benjamin Franklins, at least in some capacity. But I think there are few people in the history of the world who can really come close to Franklin living the life of an international intellectual in the 18th century. I think the man was an global cosmopolite, someone who would feel right at home even in our fast-moving times. Obviously Franklin was well ahead of his time in many ways.

This book is very strongly recommended for everyone interested in history, not just Americans and Europeans but really anyone.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Sarakani on 29 Feb. 2012
Format: Hardcover
Written as it is for an American (US) audience, this book assumes a certain background knowledge about Washington and the constitution as well as major battles during the so called American revolution for independence. I did not necessarily have this background knowledge and never had an adequate appreciation of US history (having had the good fortune to visit the White House and Jefferson's home), until I read this book.

And this is why. Franklin was a universal man, not just an American. His Christianity was a universal, non-dogmatic creed that appreciated all of humanity. Franklin's world spans English origins, to Pennsylvania, back to England more than once, then France just before the revolution and finally back to the US at the time the constitution was being drafted. The book lives and breathes the air of time travel in these disparate worlds and keeps up with Franklins output, literal, moral, scientific, political and statesman.

The author is extremely catholic in his appreciation of the diversity of Franklins culture and career in the context of England and France as well as the primordial USA. For example, he starts by indicating the two possible dates of Franklin's birth based on the Gregorian calendar and the old English calendar before 1752.

Franklin's flaws, his coldness to his wife and son are revealed within the context of a man of great compassion, wisdom and fun (his "air baths") enjoying as his did books, travel and ladies' company. There is meticulous analysis of his writings such as Old Moore's Almanack ... fortunately the author has a wealth of sources to consult. You can read about Franklin's dalliance with electricity and the truth about capturing lightning and his calming the waters using oil.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Antenna TOP 500 REVIEWER on 18 Aug. 2010
Format: Hardcover
Vivid and gripping as a "good" novel, based on scholarly detail but always crystal clear, this is one of the best biographies I have read. My knowledge of Franklin was limited to his invention of the lightning conductor. Then, when his name cropped up in a book on Tom Paine, I realised that he was also a statesman, involved in the American Revolution and establishment of a new democratic republic. In fact, he was the epitome of "Eighteenth Century Enlightenment Man" - the kind of "all rounder" it was possible to be in the 1700s. Initially a printer from humble origins, he became a journalist, social reformer, promoter of self improvement through discussion groups, philosopher, and eventually Postmaster for the whole of America, in addition to the roles already mentioned. And all the time, right into his eighties, tirelessly inquisitive, he was observing the world and coming up with theories about how, say, to design efficient stoves and street lights, make boats go faster, avoid colds through exercise, reduce lead poisoning - he even created a musical instrument called the armonica, based on running a wet finger round a bowl, which Marie Antoinette took up playing!.... Then there were his social experiments, such as identifying thirteen virtues needed in life, and then trying to develop them week-by-week in a cycle!

Alongside all the veneration, he has been criticised fiercely for his pragmatism and over-readiness to compromise, said to stem from a lack of spiritual depth and absence of real passion and imagination - Keats condemned him as "full of mean and thrifty maxims". However, if you are a supporter of the Enlightenment, you could argue that in practice Franklin was capable of showing great vision and tolerance.
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