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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life Paperback – June 1, 2004
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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 Franklins 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 heres 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
Following closely on the heels of Edmund Morgan's justly acclaimed Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson's longer biography easily holds its own. How do the two books differ? Isaacson's is more detailed; it lingers over such matters as the nature of Franklin's complex family circumstances and his relations with others, and it pays closer attention to each of his extraordinary achievements. Morgan's is more subtle and reflective. Each in its different way is superb. Isaacson (now president of the Aspen Institute, he is the former chairman of CNN and a Henry Kissinger biographer) has a keen eye for the genius of a man whose fingerprints lie everywhere in our history. The oldest, most distinctive and multifaceted of the founders, Franklin remains as mysterious as Jefferson. After examining the large body of existing Franklin scholarship as skillfully and critically as any scholar, Isaacson admits that his subject always "winks at us" to keep us at bay-which of course is one reason why he's so fascinating. Unlike, say, David McCullough's John Adams, which seeks to restore Adams to public affection, this book has no overriding agenda except to present the story of Franklin's life. Unfortunately, for all its length, it's a book of connected short segments without artful, easy transitions So whether this fresh and lively work will replace Carl Van Doren's beloved 1938 Benjamin Franklin in readers' esteem remains to be seen.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
From my many penciled-in notes, here are some of the things I learned about Benjamin Franklin and his world: Where do surnames come from? (p 5); Cotton Mather tells him, "Stoop, young man" (don't brag so much, and people will like you much better) (p 41); warns against being dogmatic in group meetings (like his Junto meetings) (p 57); the importance of doing good deeds, as well as having good thoughts (p 88); many wise maxims, such as: "He's a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom" (p 99); Scientist and Inventor: all his inventions were freely donated for public use (p 129+); General Braddock's arrogance leading to his defeat and death (p 166); life in London with his new substitute "family" (p 175+); becomes filled with depression, when genocide against innocent Indians becomes legalized in 1763, against all his efforts (p 212-4); balloon mania in France (p 420); required opium for relief from extremely painful kidney stones (p 462). More candy to be found in the extensive "Notes" section. Beautiful color portraits section.
To summarize his life, more than anyone else Franklin created the idea of a "United States" decades before it became a fact, through his zeal and support in uniting the colonies: he did this by helping to create the beginnings of a colony-wide political, social, and military infrastructure.
“Franklin has a particular resonance in twenty-first-century America. A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David Brooks’s phrase, ‘our founding Yuppie.’”
Throughout the book, Isaacson shows how Franklin was not only a product of and influencer of the Age of Enlightenment, but an influencer and shaper of America. It isn’t a difficult jump to imagine, with his curiosity, practicality, networking skills, and gregarious personality how well he would fit into the internet age. What could he have done with the ready access to information we have and the social media of today? Could you imagine a Poor Richard on Twitter? I have to agree with Isaacson, he truly would feel right at home in today’s America.
“For Franklin, who embodied the Enlightenment and its spirit of compromise, this was hardly a fault. For him, compromise was not only a practical approach but a moral one. Tolerance, humility, and a respect for others required it.”
On the other hand, I think Franklin would be at the least saddened by what has become of the government played a key role in shaping. Franklin was not only a firm believer in compromise, he was instrumental in the compromise that brought about our Constitution and government. I think he would be shocked at the lack of tolerance we have for differing opinions and our lack of humility. I don’t think he would approve of the zero sum game American politics has become. He would decry not the inability, but the abject refusal of both the Republicans and Democrats to even attempt compromise – something that has seen the fall of Speaker Boehner.
Benjamin Franklin is a very good read; it follows Franklin’s life chronologically and Isaacson indulges in some historiography, looking at how historians and pundits viewed him through the years before closing by looking back on Franklin’s life and his influence on the development of the United States. It seems to be a balanced look at Franklin’s life. Certainly Isaacson points out Franklin’s accomplishments and good points, but it is also clear that he has trouble reconciling his relationship with his wife and children compared to his relationships with his “adopted” families in England and France. I particularly like how he develops Franklin’s personality through the different stages of his life, from apprentice to printer/businessman to politician and diplomat as well as his continuing interests in philosophy and science, pointing out Franklin’s strength in practical matters as opposed to theoretical matters. Isaacson also traces Franklin’s transformation from loyal subject to revolutionary. The book is very readable; Isaacson delves into and explains politics and diplomacy both domestic and foreign without delving too deep into analysis. I truly enjoyed reading this book; it gave me some new insights into Franklin and I even learned a few things in the process. This is a book that should be on the reading list of any interested in American History.