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Leonardo da Vinci Hardcover – October 17, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of October 2017: With biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs under his belt, and a reputation as one of our premiere nonfiction writers, Walter Isaacson is the right person to take on a monumental figure like Leonardo da Vinci. To write this biography Isaacson immersed himself in da Vinci’s 7,200 pages of notebooks, which these days are spread across the map. Da Vinci’s interests were even more divergent, and Isaacson’s empathetic and deeply researched portrait illustrates how he willed himself to genius through endless curiosity and a creativity that sometimes crossed over into fantasy. Much like Isaacson’s previous subjects of Ben Franklin and Steve Jobs, da Vinci was a polymath-- he was passionate about art, science, nature, and technology, and he never stopped questioning, practicing, or experimenting. This is what made him the great innovator and historical figure that we recognize today—and Isaacson points out that this is a particular form of genius that can teach us how to live our own lives. -- Chris Schluep, Amazon Book Review
"As always, [Isaacson] writes with a strongly synthesizing intelligence across a tremendous range; the result is a valuable introduction to a complex subject. . . . Beneath its diligent research, the book is a study in creativity: how to define it, how to achieve it. . . . Most important, Isaacson tells a powerful story of an exhilarating mind and life."
—The New Yorker
“To read this magnificent biography of Leonardo da Vinci is to take a tour through the life and works of one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time and in the company of the most engaging, informed, and insightful guide imaginable. Walter Isaacson is at once a true scholar and a spellbinding writer. And what a wealth of lessons there are to be learned in these pages."
—David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Wright Brothers and 1776
“Isaacson’s essential subject is the singular life of brilliance. . . . Isaacson deftly reveals an intimate Leonardo . . . a masterpiece of concision.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A captivating narrative about art and science, curiosity and discipline.”
—Adam Grant, #1 New York Times Bestselling author of Originals
“He comes to life in all his remarkable brilliance and oddity in Walter Isaacson’s ambitious new biography . . . a vigorous, insightful portrait of the world’s most famous portraitist...Isaacson’s purpose is a thorough synthesis, which he achieves with flair.”
—The Washington Post
“Walter Isaacson is a renaissance man. . . . Rather like Leonardo, he’s driven by a joyful desire to discover. That joy bubbles forth in this magnificent book. In Isaacson, Leonardo gets the biographer he deserves—an author capable of comprehending his often frenetic, frequently weird quest to understand. This is not just a joyful book; it’s also a joy to behold. . . . Isaacson deserves immense praise for producing a very human portrait of a genius.”
—The Times of London
“The pleasure of an Isaacson biography is that it doesn’t traffic in such cynical stuff; the author tells stories of people who, by definition, are inimitable....Isaacson is at his finest when he analyzes what made Leonardo human.”
—The New York Times
“Monumental . . . Leonardo led an astonishingly interesting eventful life. And Isaacson brilliantly captures its essence.”
—The Toronto Star
"Majestic . . . Isaacson takes on another complex, giant figure and transforms him into someone we can recognize. . . . Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Illuminating . . . This is a monumental tribute to a titanic figure."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
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What Isaacson wants to understand is what makes some men and women people of genius. Not the silly way genius is portrayed in the movie Amadeus, in which it is simply some innate talent, but the character traits which enable rare individuals with the capacity to permanently change the world with the mere power of their mind.
With that goal in mind, one is ready to appreciate Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci. The book begins discussing his early achievements in art and the investigation of nature within the first forty pages, fairly quickly for a 525 page tome. And the book is dominated by appreciations of his work, both artistic and scientific (to use a modern distinction unrecognized by Leonardo). Along the way there is a wonderful resonance between Isaacson describing the characteristics of Leonardo that led to his peculiar type of genius and then seeing that genus instantiated in a particular unpublished treatise on anatomy or in a work of art such as the Mona Lisa.
If you are interested in this quest, in both seeing what led to Leonardo being a genius, and then seeing that genius expressed in his creative work, you will love Isaacson’s Da Vinci. Many biographers prefer to dwell on a lengthy account of the culture and history of the time and focus on the personal life of their subject. Others choose to try to psychoanalyze their subject and allow the reader to understand the subconscious drives which led to their accomplishments.
None of that is to be found in Isaacson’s work. Though a summary doesn’t do the book justice, Isaacson sees Leonardo as unusually perceptive of the world around him, with an insatiable curiosity, a proper understanding of how to balance theory and experiment and a disdain for doctrines handed on by the past. These traits, and others, led him to understand the effect of light in creating the illusion of three dimensions in painting, which muscles are used to smile, how men and women might one day be able to fly and all the many other prescient things expressed in his art and notebooks.
If there is anything to criticize, it is that Isaacson is almost universally positive, almost effusively, about Leonardo. But this is because the book focuses mostly on the factors that led to this genius and the actual fruits of his intellect. Admittedly, it is hard to be critical of those aspects of Leonardo’s life.
One final point to make to potential readers: Isaacson writes in clear and simple English. Though the book is 525 pages long I read it in less than a day. If he had chosen to adopt the tone of many academics this would have been a far less pleasurable, and longer, read.
Isaacson set out to determine both what made Leonardo a genius and why he is considered one. While every reader can form their own opinion as to whether he was successful, I think both the importance of the quest and its achievement in the case of Leonardo will be doubted by few readers of this book.
Using an example from Freud, Isaacson humbly channels the difficulty of trying to psychoanalyze a genius who lived generations ago; but the reliance of the sketches and work-in-progress, citations, and a powerful narration able to 'connect-the-dots' makes for a sensitive portrayal. The reliance on the sketches as the primary references to build the narrative of Leonardo's thought process is not only unique but also challenges a reader to think beyond finished product and enjoy and respect the process. The final chapter on potential lessons for a reader - sort of life lessons from Leonardo - is in itself well worth the book.
The book (physical) is a joy to hold; one wishes that the publisher had created a pull out of the wonderful timeline that the book starts off with.. some of the photos could have made into landscape for readers to better appreciate the detail; a reader is likely to significantly benefit from investing in Leonardo da Vinci: Complete Paintings and Drawings . One will be able to better appreciate the process and the product with these two wonderful books in hand.