Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo

I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci as an audiobook (I knew little of Leonardo outside of the sort of standard popular culture stuff that everyone seems to know, so caveat lector for what follows). In many ways it is an ideal audiobook: packed full of interesting facts, an interesting subject (but one that’s not a person or area of particular interest for me), written in a clear “journalistic” style, well narrated by Alfred Molina, accompanied by a detailed .pdf document, etc.

I felt like I received a good introduction to Leonardo, and a list of additional sources I could explore if I wanted to pursue his work and life further, but there was something in Isaacson’s presentation that I found irritating at times. Especially in the introduction and conclusion of the book, there was a certain “You too, can be like Leonardo” emphasis. Not that Isaacson is saying Leonardo wasn’t a genius, and that anyone with a certain set of techniques is able to paint the Mona Lisa. But, he emphasizes a number of times that Leonardo’s genius isn’t due some sort of off-the-charts intellectual horsepower (à la Isaac Newton), but grounded in things a regular person can imitate in her own small way (i.e. curiosity, a child-like sense of wonder, indulging in fantasy etc.).

It’s not that the lessons for creativity that Isaacson draws from Leonardo’s life are bad – in fact, they’re all pretty good advice – everyone could do with a little more wonder. And I don’t think it’s even the sort of “self-helpy”  tone that bothers me (after all, “Every book is self-help”) – it wouldn’t be the route I’d go, but whatever. I think my complaint is more that in his attempts to make Leonardo accessible, Isaacson misses or downplays some of the strangeness of Leonardo. While much of Leondardo’s life and personality remains mysterious (and Isaacson admirably resists the urge to speculate), what we do know makes him seem (to me) deeply strange and eccentric. In the desire to avoid perpetuating the Romantic myths of the “tortured genius” Isaacson perhaps downplays Leonardo’s “otherness” (and perhaps also the “otherness” of Leonardo’s context) too much.

I think many of Isaacson’s readers will think this is a feature rather than a bug. When reading about a historical figure and period, many readers want them to be made accessible, and want to know how the people of the past are “just like us.” Whereas, I’m always suspicious of this sort of equation – I’m always more curious about all the things I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand about a historical figure or time period: an emphasis on the differences rather than the similarities.

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