Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life - Walter Isaacson ETA: I decided to change this to four stars since I enjoyed the author's Einstein even more, and I gave that four.


Why do YOU want to pick up a book about Benjamin Franklin? If you want his biographical details you need not even read a book, just check out Wikipedia. I wanted more. I wanted to understand his soul. I wanted to get under his skin. I wanted all the historical details in Wikipedia and more. I got what I wanted. Benjamin was an amazing person; people have only a superficial idea of who he really was. He is the guy who invented the lighting pole, that jolly fat man with a twinkle in his eye. He is the only person to have signed (and extensively worked on) the Declaration of Independence, the Peace Accord with England and the Treaty with France following the Revolution and the American Constitution. So this is a man of politics, you surmise. Yes, he was, but he was so much more. It is the breadth of all that he did that is so amazing. This is a man who changed history in not one way or two ways or merely ten ways. The world would not be the same today without this man. He has shaped the American character, given us wide ranging inventions and, yes, signed all those documents.

This is not a review of who Benjamin is, for that read this book. It is thorough. It is interesting. It is funny, and this is because Benjamin has made some outrageously amusing comments. He was a fantastic storyteller. We are not only told this but given numerous examples. The book follows a chronological path from birth to death and is concluded with a fantastic epilogue that synthesizes all the diverse threads. The book has everything you may want to know about this man, but not too much either! That is quite a feat.

I have one complaint, but it does not warrant the removal of the fifth star. My gut feeling is that the book is amazing. The author clearly admires Benjamin, and yet he does clearly point out his weak characteristics and mistakes. I quite simply wish he had more emphatically underlined the fact that although Benjamin extolled virtue and the merit of helping others, he failed so miserably in how he treated those of his family. He had all these rules of good conduct and yet he failed to be a good father and husband. The author doesn't hide is failings, but I wanted a stronger statement that revealed the disparity between what he preached and what he did! There I have said it. Benjamin was in fact a very cruel person in relation to his family, and sometimes he was very selfish and ungenerous. Why did he abandon his family and remain in Europe for fifteen years? In my mind, it was only when he finally realized he would be given neither the Ohio land grant nor the coveted office in charge of the colonies, that he returned. His reasons for remaining in Europe had been very selfish. I wanted that to be said clearly.

The narration of the audiobook by Nelson Runger was good but not excellent. He spoke clearly and slowly. I like slow narrations, but I was slightly irritated by his need to audibly swallow the saliva in his mouth. Neither do I think his female intonations were appealing. I am being very picky. These criticisms should not deter you from listening to the audiobook!

An excellent book about Benjamin Franklin. You will be surprised at learning this is a man who has much more depth and importance than you ever imagined.


Through chapter four

Having listened now through chapter four, I am beginning to see both Benjamin's good and bad personality traits. This only makes the book MORE accurate. Parts tend to be a bit preachy. Lists of the adages printed in his Poor Richard Almanacs drone on a bit too long. These almanacs were profitable, definitely a financial success. The moralizing about how to achieve virtue is a bit boring. Benjamin has even devised a "Moral Perfection Project"! He seems sometimes a bit inflated. OK, he also admits to his tendency of being too proud and adds the rule that one must try to remain humble. Anyhow, all this moralizing gets a bit hard to swallow. Enough!

The author also makes it very clear that Benjamin employs humor to achieve his goals, but his humor can become quite nasty. He adds gossip columns to his paper. Sex tidbits and crime always attract readers, so they are added too. Somehow all the moralizing about proper behavior is explained away when profits are to be made. Yes, Benjamin is a pragmatist. He usually can find a convenient explanation for why what he does is acceptable. He states that gossip leads to virtue since it puts an end to improper behavior! He does admit though it must be used with discretion.... I am not looking for a fairy tale about Benjamin but the real truth, so I am not complaining.

Only through chapter two:

Finally a book that really draws my attention and makes me happy to be reading!!

I am quite sure that this book will please. The information is clear and the author mentions details that are interesting. I am reading this book because I want to know who Benjamin Franklin was. By that I mean what kind of personality did he have, how would he instinctively react in a given situation and what are his weakness and charms. I want to know him as a blood and flesh friend; friend because I am already enchanted by his directness, dislike of elitism, humor, industriousness and ability to "bend rules".

Books were important to Benjamin. He was a youth of the Enlightenment, which appeals to me too. He lived from 1706-1790. He enjoyed Daniel Defoe's writing and shared his principles. Here is an amusing detail: Defoe thought there should be established institutions for the mentally retarded. The amusing part is that he felt a tax should be levied on authors to pay for these residences. Why? Because clearly authors had been blessed with more brain matter than the retarded. They should thus care for those more poorly endowed!

Benjamin was a vegetarian, at least for a while. He was not a vegetarian for moral reasons. By saving his money, eating less expensively, he could buy more books. Again, books are important! But then, on a boat trip, the cod sizzling on the grill smell "mmmm" so good! When filleting the fish, smaller fish had been found in the gut of the larger one, the one being cooked. He then conveniently reasoned: "If you eat one another, I don't see why we cannot eat you!" That ended his vegetarianism. Also he was on his way to a better paying job.

Clearly it helps that I like Benjamin's ability to poke fun at both himself and what he saw around him. I enjoy his tendency to rationalize, albeit in a manner that is "convenient". He knew quite well he was simply finding a convincing reason for doing exactly what he wanted.

I like this book because almost every paragraph throws in extraneous information that interests me. I didn't know that Puritanism was an effort to cleanse remnant Catholic practices from Protestantism. Puritans wanted to "purify" Protestantism. Reading this book, I am given much more than mere facts about Benjamin Franklin's life.

I am listening to the audiobook narrated by Nelson Runger. He speaks clearly and very slowly. This allows one time to take small introspective excursions as you listen, and this I like to do. If you do not like glacial narrations, perhaps you should read the paper form of the book. Listening to a book often takes longer than reading the book.