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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
by Walter Isaacson
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Isaacson's Ben Franklin biography is a traditional, sequential description of Franklin's life, with some commentary. I listened to the audio version. Some of my random thoughts and impressions:
I had read Franklin's autobiography and found it entertaining and amusing. Isaacson's commentary that Franklin was someone who was very into appearances ie making a brand of himself, and his autobiography was part of this, helped me contextualize it better. Though, having had read the autobiography, the first quarter/third of the book wasn't terribly interesting, as it was a rehash of it.
The recitation of all his inventions, and scientific enquiry was impressive. A lot of knowledge we take for granted was divined and explained by Franklin. His passionate curiosity is inspiring.
As Isaacson describes Franklin, he had a very healthy, pragmatic, blend of what we now call liberal and conservative ideas. These ideas aren't mutually exclusive and a balance can be had. I appreciated that he always advocated for democracy in its most direct forms, especially with January 6, 2021 weighing on my mind.
I appreciated his pragmatic approach to self-reflection and morals --do good, be kind, and not much need to over-analyze beyond that.
He was not kind to his biological family especially compared to his "adopted" families. It was distressing to read. His wife Deborah writes to tell him she is lonely, sick, and that their daughter is getting married (because he spent 15 years in England at the end of Deborah's life) and he writes back telling her how to decorate the kitchen, to not spend money on nice things for herself or their daughter, and to send him some squirrels. (**These weren't the in a single letter, but that was the gist). I understand how upset he was with his son due to his son siding with England during the American Revolution, but his vindictiveness before that did not makes sense to me.
I think Isaacson was a bit too temporizing of Franklin's sexual reputation. Having women sit on his lap and make out with them is not "flirtation", and he seemed to dance around Franklin visiting prostitutes, and likely sleeping with both the mother and daughter of his "second" family. While some of his relationships with various young women seem platonic as described by his surviving letters, they sometimes appeared to me, as manipulative.
Overall it was a well written, fairly engaging, comprehensive biography of Franklin.
A satisfactory but certainly not outstanding biography of Benjamin Franklin. The narrative itself flows well enough, however the reader will rarely learn any novel insights. Instead, it seems this work is just an adequate compilation of prior secondary source material.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
I really enjoyed the two previous biographies of Isaacson's that I've read: his Albert Einstein one, which was very relevant to my interests, and the Steve Jobs one, which was fascinating even if its subject was unpleasant as a person. I didn't find this one quite as engaging, but I think that's mostly because this piece of history was of somewhat less interest to me. And being the particular sort of nerd I am, I'd have preferred reading more about the electricity and less about the diplomacy, but I'm fully aware that that's not going to be most people's priority in a Benjamin Franklin bio. I also admit that, as an American, I find myself getting sort of twitchy these days when reading about the origins of my country, because so much of where we've evolved from those origins seems so deeply dysfunctional to me. But, hey, that's hardly Walter Isaacson's fault. It's probably not even very much Benjamin Franklin's fault.
Anyway, all that having been said, this is still a good biography. Well-researched, thorough, and readable, with some interesting analysis from the author (especially at the end), but not too much editorializing, overall. I certainly do feel like I learned quite a bit about Franklin, and got a much better sense of who he actually was as a person, rather than as a myth or a pop culture caricature. Which I do appreciate, especially as someone who grew up within a stone's throw of Philadelphia, where Franklin's name and face seemed to be everywhere.
Anyway. If you're interested in reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin, this is probably exactly the book you want.
References to this work on external resources.
Wikipedia in English (11)
Chronicles the founding father's life and his multiple careers as a shopkeeper, writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, business strategist, and political leader, while showing how his faith in the wisdom of the common citizen helped to forge an American national identity based on the virtues of its middle class.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)973.3092 — History and Geography North America United States Revolution and confederation (1775-89) Personal narratives--American Revolution
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An edition of this book was published by Recorded Books.