Top positive review
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perfect balance of fun, fact, and analysis
on 8 May 2011
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. 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.