Reviews - What do customers think about Benjamin Franklin?
A life less ordinary Feb 19, 2008
1991 Penguin Books reissue of 1st edition (1938), 862 pages (of which 782 pages form the main body of the book).
I read this book because of Charlie Munger (Warren Buffett's partner). Benjamin Franklin is the man Charlie Munger admires and has attempted to emulate most. Franklin's autobiography was one of the twenty books Munger recommended at the back of the second edition of Poor Charlie's Almanack (the most useful book I have read). After reading Franklin's autobiography I was very interested to learn more about him - which I'm sure was Munger's intention. Thus I was led to this biography (one of two on Franklin that Munger has recommended), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. I chose to read Van Doren's before Walter Issacson's newer `Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,' as I liked the idea of being able to see what new material might have been discovered since 1938.
With each of the large biographies I have read over the last year, I have found it has taken quite a lot of reading before I really got into the book. This one was no different. It was only when I was about half way through, reading about Franklin's activities dealing with the appalling British government/monarchy in the run up to the American War of Independence, that I found myself gripped. That may have something to do with me having already read Franklin's autobiography, which was the main source for the early part of Van Doren's book (as the author said: `Plenty of other men could find materials for the story of his latest years. Only he had known about his obscure youth...').
I suspect another significant reason was that up until roughly that point there was very little information on what Franklin was actually like and how he spent his days (as opposed to things he had done or places he had been). Without this information I find it difficult to mentally associate or connect with the subject. This is one of the two key areas of weakness I identified in Van Doren's otherwise admirable book and is also the reason why I preferred Ron Chernow's biography of Rockefeller, Titan to Joseph Frazier Wall's biography of Andrew Carnegie. From about halfway through Van Doren's book we do get very interesting snippets, from Franklin himself and also from other people, about what Franklin was actually like (on pages 405, 419, 521, 600 & 649/650, in particular). I wish there was more, but perhaps the material was simply unavailable.
The second weakness was in the account of Franklin's finances. Franklin became quite wealthy through his printing activities before he left business and went to Britain. At sixty years of age, after many years of easy living and generosity, he found himself with money worries. His most important business partnership ended in 1766, depriving Franklin of a significant proportion of his income. He was also concerned that he might lose his position at the post office around the same time. Though this did not happen and he was actually appointed as agent to three further states, I was rather surprised that Franklin left a significant financial legacy when he was close to being hard up a little over twenty years before his death.
He did not appear to live frugally for the latter part of his life and so I am not sure where the funds came from. I would much have preferred it if this apparent paradox had been resolved. It seems of particular importance here, as Franklin was a man who preached the gospel of frugality, but also said: `frugality was "a virtue I never could acquire in myself."'
I suspect that Van Doren was correct when he said of Franklin: `That he talked about them [industry and frugality] so much made it clear that they came less from his nature than from his discipline.' So, after frugality had served its purpose he perhaps left it behind (though long held habits almost always leave a residue).
With those caveats, Van Doren's biography of Franklin is an impressive piece of work. I am not surprised that `The final writing of the book called for almost daily use of the New York Public Library over a period of two years.' And that `This book, full as it is, is a biography cut with hard labour to the bone.' The difficulty (as well as the interest) in writing a biography of a truly extraordinary man like Franklin was that he was extraordinary in many different areas. He was a successful businessman, an absolutely pre-eminent scientist and philosopher, as well as a remarkable and successful statesman (and that in a place and era when rank by birth was of paramount importance).
I am not paid for them and so write these book reviews primarily for myself. I thus like to include the most important things I have learned and that I wish to retain and include into my life and conduct. In this case - because of the subject - there are far too many to include here. And that is surely the reason why Franklin is Munger's biggest hero: he was not only successful but he was also wise, generous and benevolent with it. Unlike Rockefeller, for example, he seemed to really enjoy his life. And unlike Carnegie, who appeared to fail Solon's warning (I might rather call it Taleb's warning, as that is where I learned it) to Croesus to call no man happy until he is dead.
I do not wish to be happy because I have a distorted view of reality, but because I have seen the world as it is and can accept it. Franklin's life is thus a message of hope: he saw the world with exceptional clarity and was able to love it anyway.
The best biography on the planet! Feb 15, 2007
I'm a big Van Doren Bio fan, and a bigger Ben Franklin fan. Carl captures the essence of the scoundrel Franklin. This is a bigger than life, juicy life. I almost don't recognize the Ben I learned about in school. The dried up old husk of a man who was part of that long ago effort to free our nation. Read this and laugh at the ways Franklin manipulated and succeeded against many odds.
Stellar, all-encompassing view of one of the great lives led Mar 5, 2005
With this hefty tome, Carl Van Doren succeeds in authoring a compelling biography equal to the intellectual scope and achievement of his subject, Benjamin Franklin. The title 'renaissance man' was perhaps never more aptly bestowed than on Franklin, whose pursuits ranged from printing to (most famously) electricity to temperature patterns and ocean currents to politics.
Following the sweep of Franklin's advancing renown, first in the United States and then in Europe, the narrative never descends to a mere recounting of the man's many achievements (though this would undoubtedly make for fascinating reading in its own right). Rather, Van Doren devotes substantial attention to the greater social context in which Franklin works; in particular, the thread of family life in Philadelphia and later in France helps to anchor the broadening pace of his scientific and political thought, culminating in the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of republican government in America.
Fittingly, the treatment of Franklin's death sounds only the faintest of elegiac tones. Van Doren recognizes the triumph of Franklin's life in the contributions to science, philosophy, and politics that would long outlive the man himself.
This is an epic biography worthy of a Pulitzer. Jan 27, 2005
I have not read Cabel's bio from 1918 on Franklin but this one by Carl van Doren might be the best. I tend to discount autobiographies as they tend to be highly partisan & even revisionist. The version Franklin's autobiography I read, & there seems to be dozens of them, was fairly modest. This is a whole life biography & is taken in large part from Franklin's own writings, letters to from & about Franklin. The unabridged audio version was a real treat & the amount of research must have been staggering, considering it was written in the thirties. This is a very through book. Where it treads lightly, whole books have been written. That is Franklin's lovers & the numerous children from these liasons, mostly in France. Mr. Van Doren is skeptical, keeping in mind when this book was written. Franklin loved woman & woman loved him but not nessarily in that way. He had many friends & "daughters" refering to his many, young female admirers. He keeps the wise grandfatherly image I had of him. In fact he was a neglectful husband & an absentee father to his own daughter deserting his wife during all those years overseas. There is so much to him, a true citizen of the world. He was a self-made wealthy merchant, inventor, scientist, philospher & statesman. The title he was most proud was master printer, an individual who started from nothing. He had many roles in life & van Doren covers them all. His most important years were spent in England & France. He loved London & Paris. He may have been tempted but he was always loyal to America, keeping her interest in mind. He was the face of America in Europe. He played the part expected of him; a rustic American philospher with a fur hat & was all the rage in the royal court of France. The colonies were fortunate to have Franklin in England before the revolution & France during & after. That is where with, Franklin's connivance, the major decisions concerning America were being made. His accomplishments ranged over various disiplines, as the inventor of the lightening rod, the Franklin stove used for heating, bifocals etc. He founded the first public library & fire department in America. He was the major contributor to the Albany Plan of Union in 1754. A document way ahead of its time, was a useful reference during the constitutional convention in 1789. He assisted Thomas Jefferson with key phrases in the Declaration of Independence. He was important in reaching consensus when the U.S. Consititution was being drafted. Had he stayed in Philadelphia, he may simply have remained a popular, loyal, prosperous printer & businessmen. He saw first hand the disdain King George III had for him & the colonies. To him America was merely a source of taxes without the rights accorded to all free Englishmen. This & the humiliation he suffered at the hands of British Parliment, turned him into a uncompromising (for one of the few times in his life) rebel. With his patience, gentle diplomacy, wisdom & sense of fairness, America was well served. With apologies to Washington who never left North America & Jefferson, Franklin may be the greatest founding father. While writing this review it occured to me that there are many similarities to Winston Churchill. Franklin was not a warrior as Churchill was but both men were visionaries & peace makers. Both were geniuses & prolific writers on any number of subjects. They were both statesmen & active in public service to a very old age. Both men dominated the times they lived in. Read or listen to this fine book, then move on to other newer biographies. They all add somthing to this remarkable man.
If you could invite one person to dinner, who would it be? May 15, 2003
After reading "Benjamin Franklin", he would be the one person -- dead or living -- who would make the most fascinating dinner guest for an evening. His list of accomplishments is practically endless: printer, writer, philosopher, postmaster general, inventor, scientist, diplomat, statesman, traveler, and conversationalist. The majority of people who are ultimately successful have a key talent in one area, focus on that talent, and rise to the top. It is so inexplicably rare to find someone of such vast talent who also excels in all his (her) talents. Benjamin Franklin was such a gifted individual and, thankfully for our nation, focused much of his energy and time into serving the public. Carl Van Doren has written an incredibly well-researched biography of one of our key founding fathers. Van Doren's style can sometimes be dry and too academic, but keep in mind that this book was initially published in 1938. Today's reader may expect a more conversational tone and faster moving story. However, Carl Van Doren's biography is heroic in its effort and the author's admiration clearly shines through for Mr. Franklin.