Divine Fury -- A History of Genius by Darrin M. McMahon, BasicBooks '13, $29.99, 312 pages, ASIN #0465003257. Index, notes, no bibliography, three groupings of b&w glossy images.
"Today," writes historian Darrin M. McMahon, "rock stars, football coaches, and entrepreneurs are labeled 'geniuses,' and the word is applied so widely that it has obscured the sense of special election and superhuman authority that long accompanied it."
The phenomenon of "genius" is not a recent phenomenon, the author states, but one with its roots in antiquity, "when men of prodigious insight were thought to possess -- or to be possessed by -- demons and gods." But only in the 18th century was the notion of genius truly born, "assuming prominence in figures as varied as Newton and Napoleon...." In a brief Q&A, McMahon discusses the evolution of his new book:
Q. Why is our culture so obsessed with genius and geniuses? We use those words continuously -- for astrophysicists, football coaches, rock stars, and entrepreneurs. There are even shelves of self-help books now that proclaim that anyone can be a genius, or learn to think like Leonardo. Do we have too many geniuses?
A. I would answer this question by pointing to a paradox: name a genius in the postwar period other than Einstein (the exception who proves the rule). To be sure, everyone has his/her own private genius. But it is very difficult to come up with widely shared examples of the stature of Einstein, Shakespeare, Newton, or Napoleon. That points to something important. We have democratized genius, in effect dissolving the power once accorded to single individuals.
Q. There has always been a link between genius and madness. Where does the 'mad genius' come from?
A. The connection is an old one. It traces back to the ancient Greeks, and then was revitalized and re-energized during the Renaissance and again in the early 19th century by the Romantics. But beginning in the 19th century, there was also an extensive effort to give this connection a scientific basis, with clinicians arguing that genius was a kind of aberration or sickness, a side effect of neurotic illness or hereditary disease. It is true that there is not much modern scientific evidence pointing to a link between 'genius' and 'madness' (though we could complicate that a bit). Still, that link was long and widely shared and it very much contributed to the mystique of the genius as an exalted figure, who was possessed by an uncommon power, driven mad like Dr. Frankenstein or led to bring hideous monsters into being.
Author Darrin M. McMahon teaches history at Florida State University. He is the author of two previous books and lives in Tallahassee, FL.
Outrageous Fortune -- Growing Up At Leeds Castle by Anthony Russell, St. Martin's Press '13, $26.99, 303 pages, ASIN #1250006015. Grouping of b&w glossy images.
"Leeds Castle has long been hailed as the loveliest castle in the world," writes author Anthony Russell. "Originally built in the 12th century as a Norman stronghold, the castle once housed kings and queens but fell into disrepair for nearly a century, until Anthony Russell's grandmother, Lady Baillie, purchased it it in 1926 and restored the fortress to its former glory. It was in the castle's fairy-tale setting, surrounded by a moat and acres of sprawling grounds, that Anthony spent his childhood in the 1950s."
In a brief Q&A, the author discusses the writing of his new book:
Q. Let's start with Leeds Castle, the place where you spent much of your childhood that can also be considered almost a character in your book. What can you tell us about it?
A. Leeds Castle is my Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey in Outrageous Fortune. It looms large over everything that happens, even events which are taking place far away. The luxury and abundance of castle-living become hot-wired into my thinking early in my childhood, and it stays, and grows stronger, which results in difficulties and confused choices as time goes on.
Q. At what age did you become aware that there was a specific 'castle way' of life that was different from the more modern outside world?
A. Five. At Hill House, my London pre-prep school, close to Harrods, where my brother James beat up Prince Charles and I learned the joys of cricket, I very soon became aware that my fellow pupils were not being groomed in their home life for future success in quite the same way as I. It came as a real surprise to learn that they weren't all living in giant castles with 50 servants and a private golf course. Fortunately, I had enough sense not to initiate a debate on the topic, so I was able to squirm my way through the early years without bringing down the scorn of my young compatriots on my head.
For more than 500 years, Anthony Russell's family has served Kings and Queens of England as ministers, privy counsellors, generals, and prime minister. A writer, musician, and a composer, he now divides his time between Los Angeles, California; and France.
Republic of Outsiders -- The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers, and Rebels by Alissa Quart, The New Press '13, $25.95, 199 pages, ASIN #1595588752. Unillustrated.
From the dust jacket:
"In this brilliant and far-reaching account, acclaimed author Alissa Quart introduces us to those who have created bold new ways to keep themselves sane, fulfilled, and, on occasion, paid. Republic of Outsiders tells the story of the growing number of Americans who disrupt the status quo. These self-selected outsiders, freed of middlemen and armed with new technology, are able to make their unusual ideas go viral.
"They include everyone from amateur filmmakers who crowdsource their work to gransgender and neurodiverse activists and 'alternative' bankers. These outsiders create and package new identities in a process Quart dubs 'identity innovation' and push the boundaries of who they -- and we -- can be and what we can do. They even turn co-optation to their benefit. Although not necessarily born into the minority of choice, instead they select their affiliation based on affinity."
Author Quart is the author of Branded and Hothouse Kids. She has taught at Columbia University's Journalism School and lives in New York City.