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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life [Paperback]

Walter Isaacson
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (493 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 1, 2004
In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Einstein and Steve Jobs, shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character.

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin’s life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Walter Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the runaway apprentice who became, over the course of his eighty-four-year life, America’s best writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical and ingenious political leaders. He explores the wit behind Poor Richard’s Almanac and the wisdom behind the Declaration of Independence, the new nation’s alliance with France, the treaty that ended the Revolution, and the compromises that created a near-perfect Constitution.

In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin’s amazing life, showing how he helped to forge the American national identity and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Benjamin Franklin, writes journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson, was that rare Founding Father who would sooner wink at a passer-by than sit still for a formal portrait. What's more, Isaacson relates in this fluent and entertaining biography, the revolutionary leader represents a political tradition that has been all but forgotten today, one that prizes pragmatism over moralism, religious tolerance over fundamentalist rigidity, and social mobility over class privilege. That broadly democratic sensibility allowed Franklin his contradictions, as Isaacson shows. Though a man of lofty principles, Franklin wasn't shy of using sex to sell the newspapers he edited and published; though far from frivolous, he liked his toys and his mortal pleasures; and though he sometimes gave off a simpleton image, he was a shrewd and even crafty politician. Isaacson doesn't shy from enumerating Franklin’s occasional peccadilloes and shortcomings, in keeping with the iconoclastic nature of our time--none of which, however, stops him from considering Benjamin Franklin "the most accomplished American of his age," and one of the most admirable of any era. And here’s one bit of proof: as a young man, Ben Franklin regularly went without food in order to buy books. His example, as always, is a good one--and this is just the book to buy with the proceeds from the grocery budget. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Most people's mental image of Ben Franklin is that of an aged man with wire-rim glasses and a comb-over, flying a kite in a thunder storm, or of the spirited face that stares back from a one-hundred-dollar bill. Isaacson's (Kissinger) biography does much to remind us of Franklin's amazing depth and breadth. At once a scientist, craftsman, writer, publisher, comic, sage, ladies' man, statesman, diplomat and inventor, Franklin not only wore many hats, but in many cases, did not have an equal. The most intriguing thing he invented, and continued to reinvent, according to Isaacson, was himself. Three-time Tony winner Gaines has an obvious interest and affinity for the material. His delivery of Isaacson's factual yet fascinating biography is informative and friendly with an instructional yet casual tone, like that of a gregarious narrator of an educational film. All things considered, Gaines is a good match for the material. He has the authority to deliver historical facts and the enthusiasm to keep listeners interested.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 586 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074325807X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743258074
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (493 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,203 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
492 of 512 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Discover Franklin and Discover America! November 8, 2003
Format:Hardcover
Ben Franklin An American Life by Walter Isaacson is a book that should be required reading for all American high school students. I wish I had read this book thirty years ago for this book has transformed my cartoonish, single-dimensioned view of Benjamin Franklin into the multi-dimensional, sometimes controversial, and at all times entertaining historical figure he actually was. And while we view Mr. Franklin through the eyes of Author Walter Isaacson, his opinions are mostly invisible throughout almost 600 pages of text, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions.
We know Ben Franklin today mostly as one of the founding fathers. But his presence in our lives comes mostly to us through companies that either bear his name or use his likeness in advertising. Generally we think of Franklin as a wise man whose Poor Richards Almanack and thirteen virtues remind us to work hard to improve ourselves. His character is affiliated with savings, with insurance, with investments and a whole host of products, which we buy because we should. Because it would be the right thing to do, if not the most desired thing to do. After reading Isaacson's book, I believe Franklin would get a chuckle out of what we have turned him into.
I don't mean that Isaacson portrays Franklin as a fool. He certainly was not that. Isaacson allows us to see Franklin as so much more than his own Autobiography would have us know of him. Mr. Franklin was a great man, great in science, printing, writing, diplomacy, and democracy. Indeed he was the first great promoter of the middle class in America. He believed in the ability of man to make himself better. Certainly he was a self-made man.
But he was also great in the way he lived his life. He loved to travel.
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242 of 271 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Serious and Fully Enjoyable Read December 10, 2003
Format:Hardcover
If you are looking for a holiday gift that is both serious and enjoyable while capturing much of the spirit of America's founding, you need go no further than "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life."

Isaacson understands something about the American Revolution and the founding fathers that many students of the era never quite get. Each founding father plays an essential role in our becoming an independent republic. Washington is the titan of moral authority on whose integrity our nation rests. Jefferson is the brilliant writer and theorist who helped create modern politics. Madison's systematic hard work created the system of legislative power and constitutional authority that protects our freedoms. Hamilton's understanding of economics and social forces established the capitalist structure, which has made this the wealthiest society in history.
Yet in the deepest sense, these great men were pre-American. They belonged to an earlier, different era where most were landed gentry. Even Hamilton longed for the stability of monarchy.

Only Franklin personified the striving, ambitious, rising system of individual achievement, hard work, thrift and optimism found at the heart of the American spirit. Only Franklin worked his way up in the worlds of business and organized political power in both colonial and national periods. Only Franklin was a world-renowned scientist, founder of corporations, inventor of devices and creator of the American mythos of the common man.

Gordon Wood's "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" caught intellectually this sudden shift from the stable, serious gentry who dominated the founding to the wild, energetic, boisterous Jacksonians who came to define the American ethos.
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163 of 182 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 3 1/2* Informative, but Narrative Lacks Appeal November 7, 2003
Format:Hardcover
This is a factual, but sometimes unimaginative biography of the famously multi-talented Benjamin Franklin: Statesman, philosopher (indeed, perhaps the founder of American "pragmatism), politician, writer, scientist, diplomat, community organizer, publisher, and self-help pioneer. (Isaakson writes that Franklin was motivated by the belief that "to put forth benefits for the common good is divine"). Franklin played an important role in treaties with England and France, and was an initially reluctant but thereafter adamant proponent of independence from England. His Albany Plan (1754) and Articles of Confederation (1775) were early and eventually influential efforts to balance federal sovereignty and union with states' interests.

The fault of the book, then, is its subject, but how Isaacson writes about him. Its chief fault is the lack of narrative flair: With the notable exception of the first and last chapters, we have a chronological account broken into small sections. Here's one particularly mundane succession: "Constitutional Ideas" (a mere 2 pages)," "Meeting Lord Howe Again (5 pages)," "To France, with Temple and Benny (4 pages)." A more satisfying approach would have traced Franklin's domestic political thought in one larger chapter, but this would violate Isaakson's chronological imperative. At times the book's equally weighted, well-ordered facts yield a pace that is both plodding and boring. The book is best when it manages to integrate larger themes with the strictly biographical details.

Comparing this biography with David McCullough's popular "John Adams," shows that McCullough's book is more fully realized and more "modern," as he interprets themes and implications within broader contexts.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Extremely interesting but a little painful to slug through
Just finishing. Extremely interesting but a little painful to slug through. The magic of Franklin is hidden by the author's adherence to writing a very scholarly tome.
Published 20 hours ago by Rick Arscott
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Outstanding account of one of history's great minds.
Published 20 hours ago by SG
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Excellent interesting read. Well documented and researched.
Published 1 day ago by Bob
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Amazing man and an incredibly interesting story.
Published 3 days ago by JNewmam
4.0 out of 5 stars Great insight into the lives of people during that time ...
Great insight into the lives of people during that time period. I enjoyed reading this book. Good writing by Isaacson
Published 3 days ago by Johan van Blerk
5.0 out of 5 stars Franklin likes chicken and rice
Excellent examination of Franklin.
Published 6 days ago by CoachDaveK
5.0 out of 5 stars I set out to read a good biography of each president
I set out to read a good biography of each president. By the time I got done with Jefferson, I realized how integral Franklin was to the story of America, and decided I could not... Read more
Published 10 days ago by Kevin Jacobson
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
nice book, thanks
Published 11 days ago by robert
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
5 stars Great reading.
Published 13 days ago by john bass
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic!
An excellent biography! Well written and intertaining. The language is not too lofty, especially for a subject of this caliber. Read more
Published 16 days ago by Scott Bower
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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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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
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From the author
Hi Walter,

I just finished this book and must say that I sincerely enjoyed it. Throughout, a few questions came to mind. If you're still checking this I thought I would put them out there for discussion.

1. It's clear that it took Franklin some time to outwardly oppose slavery. You indicate... Read More
Oct 3, 2007 by Adam |  See all 2 posts
Why is not this book ready for Whispersync for Voice? Be the first to reply
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