- Audio Download
- Listening Length: 24 hours and 45 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
- Audible.co.uk Release Date: 7 April 2011
- Language: English
- ASIN: B008CPXDFY
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank:
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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life Audiobook – Unabridged
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Walter Isaacson is one of the greatest biographers writing today, and this book is exceptional (he is also known for his biography of Steve Jobs). Isaacson leads you through Franklin’s long and fascinating life, starting with his success as a printer and writer in Philadelphia, and spanning through his forays and discoveries as a scientist and inventor, his success as an ambassador during the American War of Independence, where he helped broker support from France, and the ultimate peace with Britain, and as a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
Franklin championed the virtues of industriousness and values of the working class and thus was instrumental in shaping the development of the American character and national identity. In many ways, Franklin personifies the difference in attitude between the United States and the old world of Europe in the 18th century. Franklin is an inspirational character and his focus on self-education is particularly noteworthy. Although his formal schooling ended when he was ten, he continued his education on his own through reading voraciously, writing under a pseudonym for his brother’s newspaper and forming clubs and societies with the intention to develop and share knowledge. During his time in Paris towards the end of his life, he was revered as a philosopher and academic and even considered by some a peer of Voltaire - pretty good for someone with only two years of formal education.
His success as a statesman and ambassador can be attributed to his ability to control his pride and ego, utilising silence as a tool in negotiations and most importantly his understanding of the power of compromise. Franklin’s ability to compromise contributed to much of his success and his skill at knowing when to concede and let his opponent save face can be seen again and again during the negotiations for French support, peace with Britain and facilitating agreement regarding the United States Constitution. Moreover, this understanding of compromise can also be seen in his wider beliefs, from balancing the desire to be financially successful with his belief of frugality, to his religious tolerance.
Franklin deep curiosity shaped how he viewed the world, never taking himself too seriously, he didn’t approach problems as an expert or academic. Instead his playfulness and ability to experiment galvanised his success as a writer, inventor, scientist and statesman. Franklin definitely deserves the title of the greatest American and is a role model to us all.
Major Takeaways: (i) The importance of Franklin in creating the American identity (ii) The power of compromise (iii) importance of self-education (iv) the power of silence and listening during a negotiation.
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. On the way across the Atlantic, he even made measurement of water temperatures that were so accurate they formed the basis of the beginning of our understanding of the Gulf Stream. The range of his activities is truly astonishing: at one point, he invented a phonetic writing system for English to make it easier to learn to read; it involved the invention of six new characters and the elimination of six redundancies, though it never caught on.
His political evolution is also interesting. There was a time when he so enjoyed England that it was assumed he would stay as a British citizen. He was late to come over to the independence cause, which gave his enemies (they were many) fodder to attack him as a hidden tory. He was also rather conservative economically, in order to protect entrepreneurs from government encroachments. But he abhorred aristocratic privilege in favor of the middle class, also quite unconventional. Perhaps his greatest contributions were as a diplomat: among scores of intrigues, he negotiated the alliance with France, which for the first time in centuries was at peace with Britain (a sine qua non to win the war) as well as the peace treaty with Britain. Finally, he was a grey eminence at the Constitutional Convention, keeping things going with his humor and spirit more than his intellectual contributions that were considered politely and then discarded. Any one of these accomplishments would have assured him an historical legacy.
Behind this, you also get to know the man. He had a strangely distant family life, leaving his wife for more than a decade and cultivating surrogate families though it is not clear that he was ever unfaithful to his wife, however many young women flocked to him at the height of his fame. He was cheerful and witty, very unlike the dour Puritan John Adams, whose hyper-worried approach to life was legendary. Franklin was a deist, believing that God was revealed in the study of nature and reason rather than a faith-based follower of doctrine or sect.
The book is a bit thin on analysis, but you get enough of the historical context and it never bogs down in unnecessary detail. It is better to know the facts of the revolution prior to reading it, but not a necessity. There is a wonderful essay at the end on his legacy, but it is quite short. The author does try a bit hard to avoid certain controversies. For example, there is a sketch (by a witness) of a young lady sitting is his lap in London, reaching, well, down. Is it you know what? Maybe, but Isaacson argues otherwise, in my view a bit disingenuously - after all, the higherups were rather reticent then.
This is one of the most wonderful books I have read in recent years, a true delight. Highest recommendation.