Benjamin Franklin Summary

Benjamin Franklin SummaryAn American Life

If, as Carlyle says, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men,” Walter Isaacson is surely one of the greatest modern historians. And the second man he chose to write about – possibly the greatest figure in American history.

A match made in heaven. And a warm recommendation for every American to read “Benjamin Franklin.”

Who Should Read “Benjamin Franklin”? And Why?

At the end of his biography, Walter Isaacson says that Franklin is “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.”

So, if you are an American, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” should be your compulsory read for this month. However, “the First American” is only one of the things Benjamin Franklin was. Or, to restate this, Isaacson’s biography should prove exciting to historians and political theorists, to scientists and inventors alike.

Finally, this book would be more than an interesting read for anyone keen on learning how exceptional individuals manage to change the world.

About Walter Isaacson

Walter IsaacsonWalter Isaacson is an American journalist and author. He has been the CEO of CNN and Managing Editor of the “Time” magazine, which, in 2012, voted him one of the 100 most influential people of the world.

Isaacson is a Professor of History at Tulane University and a major modern biographer. In addition to “Benjamin Franklin,” he has also written biographies about “Einstein,” “Kissinger,” “Leonardo da Vinci” and “Steve Jobs”. We featured the last one on our list of the best 15 biographies in history.

Isaacson has also written “The Innovators” and “The Wise Men,” which, loosely speaking, fall in the genre of “group biographies”.

“Benjamin Franklin Summary”

Benjamin Franklin was… actually, there are two ways to end this sentence. And even Wikipedia couldn’t make the decision – so why should we?

In fact, let’s quote it:

Option #1: “Benjamin Franklin was an American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.”

We’ve used that word – polymath – four or five times so far in our summaries, so you already know what it means: a person with a very wide range of expertise. Or, as we would like to say, “a show-off”, or “everything we’ll never be.”

So, what was Benjamin Franklin more specifically?

Option #2: “Benjamin Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.”

But, wait!

It gets even more fascinating:

Benjamin Franklin spent just two years learning at a local school, between the age of 8 and 10. Because, well, that’s how much money his father Josiah had! After all, he had 10 children with Benjamin’s mother! (In addition to the 7 from his previous marriage!)

So, at a very early age, Ben started working as an apprentice under his older brother James, who was a printer. And he was still a teenager when he started to think about owning a business himself.

However, what interested him even more was writing.

While working as a printer’s apprentice, he grew enamored with books such as “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and “An Essay Upon Projects”. And he even tested his skills in his brother’s newspaper, publishing under a female pseudonym, Mrs. Silence Dogood!

At the age of 21, Franklin established the “Leather Apron Club,” probably known to you as “Junto”. It was a group of “like minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community.”

And no one liked improving himself better than Franklin. He had a curious mind, and he liked to try to understand everything around him.

For example, in his time, many people believed that lighting is something supernatural. However, after witnessing some electricity tricks in Boston in 1743, Franklin did the math and realized that it’s nothing more than an electric discharge.

Scientists adored his brilliant solution via a simple experiment; religious people thought him nothing short of the devil. Hey – even Immanuel Kant blamed him for playing some sort of a god! In fact, he called him “the modern Prometheus.” Fun trivia: that’s exactly how Mary Shelley called Victor Frankenstein!

Just about the same time that he was discovering electricity – and naming “the battery” and “the conductor” – Franklin was shaping the United States. In 1747, he established a private voluntary militia and got an interesting political idea: federalism.

Namely, what if the American colonies had their own local governing laws, but were still subjects to the British Empire’s general law on more important matters (defense, expansion, etc.)?

Too democratic – thought the British about Franklin’s Albany Plan. Well, maybe the British shouldn’t have their say at all in American matters – started thinking Benjamin Franklin.

But, what finally did it was the Stamp Act of 1765.

Franklin wasn’t against it at the beginning, but it seems that the majority of the colonies were. And he found out this the hard way: while he was in England, a mob attacked his house, and his wife, armed with a rifle, barely survived!

So, when Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1775, he had his mind already set: independent and united states of America.

However, his initial plan needed some tweaking. And it got just the right momentum the very next year, 1776, when Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” sold over 100,000 copies. Now it seemed that there was no more space for backing out.

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress voted for independence. And Benjamin Franklin corrected the first draft of Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” inserting “self-evident” where “sacred and undeniable” stood before.

You know the place.

Just like the rest of the story:

America wouldn’t have won against the British if Franklin hadn’t managed to secure an alliance with the French. And he did – in addition to later skirting the initial agreement with them to get as much as he could from Britain. (Read: independence; and, maybe, Canada.)

Without irking the French! Talking about diplomatic skills!

At an old age, Franklin would embark on one more mission: ending slavery. He would write three essays in 1789 and 1790, and back a petition. However, he’d ultimately fail.

And just some time after that, he would die on April 17, 1790, at the age of 84.

His legacy lives on.

Key Lessons from “Benjamin Franklin”

1.      The Important Thing Is to Never Stop Questioning Things
2.      Organize Your Life and Arrive at Moral Perfection
3.      Half of the Proverbs You Know – Are Ben Franklin’s

The Important Thing Is to Never Stop Questioning Things

Forget all about what it did to the cat: curiosity is a virtue. Benjamin Franklin wouldn’t have been what he had become if he hadn’t been so curious. And the same is true about Einstein and Stephen Hawking. The latter one said it best: “I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally, I find an answer.”

Organize Your Life and Arrive at Moral Perfection

Begun in 1771, but publish after his death, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography has been described as “the most remarkable of all the remarkable histories of… self-made men.” And the most interesting thing you get out of it: that Ben Franklin was the original life-organizer!

And everything he achieved in his life, he achieved through holding onto a simple routine and believing in 13 virtues penned when he was 20.

You can have a look at his schedule here: 8 hours of work a day, 6 hours of sleep, and the rest dedicated to examination. The morning question: “what good shall I do this day?” The evening question: what good have I done today?”

As for the 13 virtues – read them here. And adhere to them as well.

Half of the Proverbs You Know – Are Ben Franklin’s

Benjamin Franklin was a great prosaist. And he wrote for almost three decades for the yearly “Poor Richard’s Almanac” under a pseudonym. Finally, he collected the writings in a book called “The Way to Wealth.” And that’s where you can first find some of the phrases you use on a daily basis today.

Here’s just a small selection: “no pains, no gains,” “have you somewhat to do tomorrow, do it today,” and “early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

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“Benjamin Franklin” Quotes

When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him. Click To Tweet Franklin kept a horn book always in his pocket in which he minuted all his invitations to dinner, and Mr. Lee said it was the only thing in which he was punctual. Click To Tweet History is a tale, Franklin came to believe, not of immutable forces but of human endeavors. Click To Tweet Whoever accustoms himself to pass over in silence the faults of his neighbors shall meet with much better quarter from the world when he happens to fall into a mistake himself. Click To Tweet Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

As we’ve already come to expect from Walter Isaacson, “Benjamin Franklin” is a triumph in historical research and engaging novelistic writing. It’s authoritative and yet easy to read, it’s gigantic (about 600 pages) and yet it’ll feel like you’ve finished in a heartbeat.

But, after all, Benjamin Franklin is such a colossal and colorful figure that he deserves nothing less.    Take this summary with you and read anywhere! Download PDF:   

Einstein Summary

Einstein Summary

MicroSummary: Albert Einstein is rightfully considered one of the most influential people in history. Walter Isaacson’s biography delves deep inside his life and universe, trying to unravel the origins of his genius and his unconventionality, and painting a portrait of one extraordinary person with a life-long sense of childlike wonder.

His Life and Universe

Albert Einstein is not merely an icon of the past century – he’s one of the greatest scientists ever. And this insightful Walter Isaacson biography is so good we’ve included it among the best 15 in history.

About Walter Isaacson

Walter IsaacsonWalter Isaacson is a University Professor of History and a major biographer. In addition to “Einstein,” he has also written few other biographies – “Benjamin Franklin,” “Kissinger,” “Leonardo da Vinci” – including the highly revered one of Steve Jobs.

The Innovators” and “The Wise Men” are, more or less, group biographies of few other extraordinary people.

“Einstein Summary”

Albert Einstein was born on 14 March 1879 in a secular Jewish family. When he was four and sick in bed, his father gave him a compass; and that was the first time he experienced something he’d crave for up to the time of his death.

Scientific wonder.

However, it seems that the thing which made Einstein so special was the fact that, in addition to science, he was always interested in art and philosophy. His mother signed him up for violin lessons, and a family friend, Max Talmud (or: Max Talmey), introduced him to the works of Bernstein and Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”

Talmud says that Einstein understood them perfectly. Even though he was barely 13 years old.

Four years later he enrolled at the Zürich Polytechnic, and there he met his future wife, the Serbian mathematician Mileva Marić. And it seems that Einstein was many things to many people, but he was not a good husband to Mileva, and barely a good father to their two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard.

After divorcing Mileva, Einstein had a second wife: his first cousin, Elsa. He didn’t treat her too nice as well. In fact, he had many extramarital affairs. And he considered her basically his housewife.

Einstein, obviously, spent most of his time working.

And, in 1905, it paid dividends. In the form of four papers published in the “Annalen der Physik” journal. So good that they are now called the Annus mirabilis papers (“The Papers of the Extraordinary Year”).

So good that they are the basis of modern physics.

But, this is Einstein we’re talking about; and, of course, his scientific achievements didn’t end up there. A decade later he would turn one of these papers – about the special theory of relativity – into an even more all-encompassing model of the world, “The General Theory of Relativity.”

However, this is where things started to get a bit strange!

Einstein PDF Walter Isaacson

Einstein, the man who rebelled in the face of conventional physics for so long, spend the rest of his life working to disprove quantum theory. And for a somewhat unscientific reason: he was a deist and determinist and didn’t want to believe that so many things about the universe are uncertain.

But, the world around him certainly was. Being a Jewish, he had to leave Germany for the United States, from where he oversaw some of the consequences of his investigations.

Namely, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And because he was a socialist, he wasn’t too welcomed even in the United States. The FBI followed him for years and collected over 14 boxes of information about him.

Einstein died in 1955.

And he was working even on his deathbed.

Key Lessons from “Einstein”

1.      Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
2.      Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge
3.      Genius Doesn’t Necessarily Transfer Between Categories

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

“If I have seen further,” wrote Isaac Newton to polymath Robert Hooke, “it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Something worth thinking about as often as possible. We tend to think of geniuses as people capable of creating original things out of nothing. But, in fact, it is never so.

Einstein developed his theories by building on the work of previous great minds, such as Henri Poincaré, Max Planck, and even Phillip Lenard (who was an anti-Semite and crusaded against him). Some think that, even if Einstein hadn’t existed, the world of science was ripe for his findings.

Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge

Einstein believed that schools are not there so that you can collect facts; but so that they can teach you how to think. And thinking is a very complex process, which is neither purely creative nor exclusively scientific.

Consequently, it’s always good if you can combine both modes of thought.

The best way to do this is by visualizing everything.

Genius Doesn’t Necessarily Transfer Between Categories

In 1952, Albert Einstein was offered by then Prime Minister of Israel, Ben Gurion, the position of President of Israel. Albert Einstein, however, declined. It was not because of his age, or because of the fact that he may have been to secular.

It was because he didn’t believe that he was capable of being a President. Simply put, even if you’re the ultimate genius in one sphere, you may be just a regular Joe in another.

Genius is a strange category, but it’s certainly not transferable.

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“Einstein” Quotes

To dwell on the things that depress or anger us does not help in overcoming them. One must knock them down alone. Click To Tweet Einstein: The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think. Click To Tweet Einstein: I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. Click To Tweet I believe that love is a better teacher than a sense of duty. Click To Tweet Einstein: Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. Click To Tweet    Take this summary with you and read anywhere! Download PDF:   

Top Biographies Books

There are so many biographies, memoirs, and diaries out there, and so many essential and influential people who have actively shaped our world that, really, choosing the books for this list took us a lot more time than actually writing it.

In the end, we longlisted so many books that we decided to leave out some of the more usual suspects. In our defense: we have included each of them in some of our other lists; and you can read our opinion about them there.

Of course, we’re talking about classics such as “Titan” and “Elon Musk” (featured in our top business books list, at #3 and #4), “Alexander the Great” (#3 in our top history books), or our personal favorite, Skidelsky’s “John Maynard Keynes” (#4 among our top economics books).

And even with these four out of the picture, it took some time to settle on the following 15. So, who knows, maybe we won’t resist the urge to make an additional best biographies booklist!

But, until then – here are our top biographies books.

#1. “The Twelve Caesars” by Gaius Suetonius

The Twelve Caesars SummarySuetonius (full name: Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus) lived through the last third of the first and the first third of the second century after Christ. He was a close friend of Pliny the Younger and for the last few years of his life worked as a private secretary to Hadrian (yes, the emperor with the wall).

While there, he wrote a group biography of Julius Caesar and the first eleven emperors of the Roman Empire, originally called “De vita Caesarum,” (literally: “About the Life of the Caesars”) but known to us by the much more straightforward title “The Twelve Caesars.”

The leaders whose lives are covered by Suetonius are the following: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. And the order in which each biography is retold illustrates Roman discipline at its best: appearance, omens, family, quotes, life.

You’ll find everything here: decadence and lewdness, greatness and madness. And oh so much ancient purple-prosed yellow press!

#2. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” by Giorgio Vasari

Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects SummaryThey say that the Renaissance was a period which required giants to happen at all; and it was giants it got. And in Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” it also got their dedicated official biographer.

Considered by many “the first important book on art history” and “perhaps the most famous, and even today the most-read work of the older literature of art,” “The Lives” would prove to be Giorgio Vasari’s most lasting monument; and this speaks volumes of the importance of the work; because, you see, Vasari, like most of the people he wrote about, was also an accomplished architect and painter.

The list of the Old Masters whose lives are concisely recounted by Vasari is too long to be included in a short review, but, let’s just say that if he’s an Italian and an artist with some fame before 1568 – you’ll definitely find his biography here.

Interspersed – why, of course! – with some entertaining gossip and a notorious lie or two.

#3. “The Life of Samuel Johnson” by James Boswell

The Life of Samuel Johnson SummaryConsidered by most historians “the first modern biography” in the English language, “The Life of Samuel Johnson” is hailed by many as the greatest biography ever written.

A colossal work of almost 2,000 pages, the book combines three things that seem prerequisite for the greatest of biographies. Namely: a fascinating man, a religiously devoted close friend of his, and an exceptionally capable diarist.

Of course, the first of these three descriptions refers to Dr. Samuel Johnson, “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”. The foremost English critic of his time, Johnson was also a genius lexicographer who singlehandedly wrote one of the best dictionaries of the English language. And he did it in merely eight years!

The latter two are accounts of James Boswell, a Scottish writer whose name has become a common noun, with the meaning “an assiduous and devoted admirer, student, and recorder of another’s words and deeds.”

We dare you to find a best biographies booklist where you won’t find this one. And ours will certainly not be the exception.

#4. “Eminent Victorians” by Lytton Strachey

Eminent Victorians SummaryAnother classic – and another group biography!

Lytton Strachey was one of the founding members of the Bloomsbury Group, an intellectual clique which existed during the first half of the 20th century, and which, in terms of its unconventionality, sexual freedom, and sheer creativity, may have no parallel whatsoever in all of human history.

In fact, their behavior may seem scandalous even today; and their ideas are still widely studied and admired.

Written during the years of the First World War, “Eminent Victorians” was such a sensation that brought Strachey instant fame. The book deals with the lives and deeds of four Victorian figures (Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon) considered epitomes of moral virtue before the book; but, not after.

That’s, in fact, why the book is praised so much even a century after it was first published. Because, if James Boswell’s biography was a work of devotion, Lytton Strachey’s was a work of irreverence.

And the best of today’s biographies have a little of each.

#5. “James Joyce” by Richard Ellmann

James Joyce SummaryIf you know Richard Ellmann only by his works, you’ll probably never guess that he’s an American, let alone the son of a Jewish Romanian and a Ukrainian immigrant.

Why, you ask?

Because, basically everything he ever wrote was either an essay, a critical study, or a classic biography on one of the three most eminent Irish writers of the modern age, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Years, and James Joyce.

The biography of the one listed last – simply titled “James Joyce” – has been described by Anthony Burgess as “the greatest literary biography of the century.”

Written over a period of ten years and over 800 pages long in its final revision, the book is a fresh, earnest, and critically penetrative insight into the mind and the work of possibly the most influential writer of the 20th century.

But, also – just so you don’t feel too diminished in comparison – a man with many flaws and some pretty strange sexual fetishes.

#6. “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank

The Diary of a Young Girl SummaryPossibly the most famous autobiography, “The Diary of a Young Girl” is also one of the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking stories ever put on paper.

It’s a book you certainly already know all too intimately to require a list of accolades as evidence for its place here. But, even so, in the face of so much stubborn historical revisionism, we feel obliged to at least link a few inclusions of Anne Frank’s “Diary” among the top books of the 20th century, whether they come by way of a nation-wide UK survey, New York Public Library’s estimations, or the general world public’s ratings.

There’s really no need to delve into the story here. Not because you probably already know it, but because It’s not a good idea to summarize something as fragile and nightmarish as “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

And because it’s the book everybody should reread in its entirety from time to time. So as we never forget how cruel humans can be to other humans. And, maybe, some day in the future, learn to be somewhat better to each other.

#7. “Night” by Elie Wiesel

Night SummaryNo, it’s still not the right time to rise above the depths of despair. Anne Frank’s “Diary” may be the most famous book on the subject, but it’s only one of many. And we wanted to be just to the victims and witnesses of one of the most horrifying events in human history; since, destiny, obviously, wasn’t.

And, according to Elie Wiesel, a Romanian-born American Jewish writer, God wasn’t as well. In “Night,” a severely abridged version of an almost 900-pages-long manuscript in Yiddish, he writes about his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, during the last two years of the Second World War.

Born in 1928 and barely half a year older than Anne Frank, Wiesel – later a Nobel Peace Prize winner – was just fifteen when he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. There, among many other things, he became a father to his father, who was, in turn, reduced to childlike helplessness in the face of this tremendous adversity.

His father, just like the rest of his family, died. Wiesel survived. To tell his story.

#8. “Hitler: A Biography” by Ian Kershaw

Hitler SummaryAnd the man most people hold responsible for the death of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s family?

Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany’s dictator during the Second World War.

Fascinating for all the wrong reasons, the Führer has inspired so many books that Wikipedia has a separate article about them. However, at least in the English-speaking world, many would probably agree that Sir Ian Kershaw is the foremost expert on Hitler and Nazi Germany. And that his “Hitler: A Biography” is the definitive one-volume account of his life.

The book is, in fact, a compilation of few other books that include “Hitler” in their titles and that Kershaw wrote during a period of almost four decades. “New York Times” described it as “superb”; and Niall Ferguson called it “magisterial”.

Over 1,000 pages long and breathtakingly remarkable from start to finish, “Hitler” is also fully illustrated, including over 150 wartime photographs and 8 more than useful maps. You’ve guessed it: a must-read.

#9. “Churchill: A Life” by Martin Gilbert

Churchill SummaryAnother biography written by a person exceptional enough to be knighted about a man with as many chivalric orders as you’ll ever see put next to a name. And it’s only natural that we follow up Sir Ian Kershaw’s account of Hitler with Sir Martin Gilbert’s biography of his nemesis, Churchill.

A prolific author of nearly 90 books, Gilbert is deservedly most famous today for his eight-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill, expectedly voted the Greatest Briton in history in a 2002 BBC poll.

But, just like in the case of #8, we don’t want to bother you with such an epic – although, people say it’s more than worth it – so we list here “Churchill: A Life,” the boiled-down version of the complete chronologically broken-down biography.

It’s still gigantic (1,000 pages), but, it’s about one of the giants of the 20th century. However, it’s so dramatic and intimate, and so vividly written, that you won’t be able to put it down.

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#10. “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson

Einstein SummaryOf course, there are always good things happening around; and this seems even truer in the case of the worst atrocities.

So, while politicians and soldiers were struggling to save what they could from the world they had senselessly plunged into two ravishing wars beforehand, scientists and artists were silently trying to change our whole perception of it – and, with it, ourselves as well.

Albert Einstein, a German-born theoretical physicist, is widely held to have been the man who spearheaded the most groundbreaking scientific revolution of the 20th century. His theory of relativity challenged basically everything we knew about the world. And, just like in the case of Boswell, transformed Albert’s surname into a common noun.

Its meaning is, of course, “genius.”

What made him one is the question the acclaimed 2008 biography by Walter Isaacson tries to answer. And, in a way, it does – in Isaacson’s clear and witty style we have grown to love so much over the years.

#11. “A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast SummaryOne of the most widely read and as widely loved American authors of the 20th century, Ernest Hemingway, didn’t live to see his Paris memoir “A Moveable Feast” published and showered with praises by literary critics and general readers alike.

As it’s already known, he shot himself in the summer of 1961, some three years before his fourth wife Mary Hemingway allowed the publication of his manuscripts.

And, boy, what a great service she did to everyone enamored with Hemingway or Paris. Not to mention modernist literature or the roaring twenties!

Detailing his time as an expatriate in France between the two World Wars, this memoir is basically a who’s who in the world of Anglo-American emigrants. On its pages, you’ll find everyone from Joyce and Stein to Picasso and Pound; and, of course, most famously, the Fitzgeralds.

Need we add – there’s also a lot of brew and brawls, and even more scandal and extravagance. And, oh, such gems as hair-growing contest with Gertrude Stein and, well, a different kind of measuring contest with Fitzgerald.

We’ll leave it to you to find out more about it.

#12. “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero” by David Remnick

King of the World SummaryAmerican journalist David Remnick won a Pulitzer Prize two decades ago for “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire,” his wonderful historically accurate (and eye-witnessed) account of the fall of the USSR. And in view of this achievement, “King of the World,” written five years later, has remained somewhat in the shadow.

Which is a pity, because, as Tim Lewis writes, it may be the best sports biography one can find. The subject is worthy of such description: Muhammed Ali, both a boxing legend and a larger-than-life political activist.

King of the World” is actually about the year – and the fight – when we can retrospectively deduce that it all started. As Remnick shows, when Cassius Clay entered the ring with Sonny Liston on a February night in 1964, most people thought of the fight as “a matchup between a Muslim punk and a terrifying thug.”

But once he left the ring, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ali was not merely the new heavyweight champion. He was something more: “a new kind of black man.”

One that was about to fly out of its prison cell.

#13. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings SummaryAnd five years later, as Ali was fighting his four-year-long battle against the system which forcefully tried to draft him for a war he didn’t want to participate in, the African American poet Maya Angelou published the first part of her seven autobiographies, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Detailing her life from the age of three to the age of sixteen, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is Maya Angelou’s deeply disturbing, and yet profoundly inspiring coming-of-age narrative. It illustrates, in captivatingly lyrical language, the traumatic effects which racism and sexism can leave on a black American girl growing up in Arkansas, and the power of poetry which can, nevertheless, provide a reason to stay alive and move on.

Angelou’s friend James Baldwin described it best; and we feel an obligation to quote him. “’I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ he wrote, “liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.”

#14. “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs SummaryThere are probably few people who can be considered icons of the 21st century as much as Steve Jobs, the co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc. And there is not one biography of his life comparable to the one Jobs ordered himself.

Written by Walter Isaacson, “Steve Jobs” is based on more than forty interviews given by Jobs himself, and hundreds made by Isaacson with at least as many members of his closest and somewhat distant social circles. In addition, Isaacson had an “unprecedented” access to Jobs’ life; and a promise by the man himself that his interviewees will speak to him earnestly.

In fact, Jobs was a gentleman enough to waive his right to read the book before its publication; and that finally happened merely 19 days after Steve Jobs decided to, well, log off.

The book was turned into a film in 2015. And just as the book, it also received rave reviews.

#15. “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild SummaryThe last book on our list was adapted into a movie as well. Both are good – but, as usually, we prefer the book.

Written by American writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer and published in 1996, “Into the Wild” chronicles the life and travels of Christopher McCandless who, after graduating from Emory University in 1990, decided to donate all of his money to charity, to change his name into Alexander Supertramp, and spend the rest of his life living as a hiker and traveler.

After a two-year journey across North America, he renounced even the remaining few of his earthly possessions. And started living as simply as possible – off the land. Unfortunately, merely four months later, hunters found his decomposing body. Based on its condition, they concluded that he died of starvation.

“Into the Wild” tries to understand the logic behind McCandless’ choices. But it doesn’t shy away from giving us a heartbreaking portrayal of a  profoundly enigmatic person. Mesmerizing.    Take this summary with you and read anywhere! Download PDF:   

The Innovators Summary

The Innovators Summary

How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

You’re reading this on your or on your mobile phone, while listening to music or watching TV.

But, have you ever asked yourself how it all came to be? And why your grandparents didn’t have the pleasure of doing any of these things when they were your age?

Whether you know them or not, the people Walter Isaacson writes about in “The Innovators” created the world of your today.

And it’s time you learn at least a name or two.

Who Should Read “The Innovators”? And Why?

The Innovators” is a book about technology written for the general public. This means that it presents complex ideas in a manner comprehensible even to someone only marginally familiar with the relevant concepts.

So, the more you know about computers and the internet, the less you might enjoy the book. Read it for the great story it tells if you are such a person. Read it because you should know the people the book talks about if you are an IT novice.

About Walter Isaacson

Walter IsaacsonWalter Isaacson is an American journalist and author. He is a Professor of History at Tulane University, and a CEO of the Aspen Institute. In the past, he has also been the Chairman of CNN and the Managing Editor of “Time” magazine.

An exquisite storyteller, Isaacson has written few acclaimed biographies. The most notable among them are “Steve Jobs,” “Einstein,” and “Leonardo da Vinci.”

“The Innovators Summary”

In 1841, Scottish writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” When Walter Isaacson wrote “Steve Jobs” few years back, he must have believed Carlyle.

Twenty years after Carlyle, the English polymath Herbert Spencer suggested otherwise. According to him, history is a collaboration. And all great men exist because of other great – and even not so great – men.

And that’s the starting point of “The Innovators.”

It’s a book that is quite difficult to summarize. It covers almost two centuries of history and talks about at least twenty different giants of innovation. The innovators are grouped around ten different innovations, and framed by two chapters dedicated to a forgotten pioneer.

Ada, the Countess of Lovelace.

The innovations discussed are, in sequence of almost standalone chapters, the computer, programming, the transistor, the microchip, video games, the internet, the personal computer, software, online, and the web.

The innovators are almost everybody who matters in the digital world, from Charles Babbage and Alan Turing, through John von Neumann and J. C. R. Licklider, to Steve Jobs and Wikipedia’s Jimbo Wales.

It’s really an amazing tour de force of historical research and technological savvy. of which only few writers are capable nowadays.

Isaacson’s greatest achievement in “The Innovators”, however, is something else. It’s his ability to connect seemingly unrelated episodes of history to show that the presence is deeply rooted in the past. In other words, Wikipedia didn’t start with Jimbo Wales or Tim Berners-Lee, but with Ada Lovelace and the Analytical Engine.

Don’t believe us?

Here’s just one of the many similar threads.

Microsoft Windows dominates the PC market. But, some of its best parts were inspired by Apple’s innovations. And it all began when IBM commissioned Microsoft to develop an operating system for their PCs in 1980s.

And here’s where it gets interesting!

You see, IBM wasn’t always called IBM. It was originally founded more than a century ago as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. Which in turn, was what the Hollerith Electric Tabulating System evolved into.

Wondering what was there before it?

A US Census Bureau worker named Herman Hollerith. He believed that he could automatize the process of collecting and categorizing census data with punch cards.

Was that the first prototype for the modern computer?

Not by a long shot.

Enter the Analytical Engine imagined by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. Who, by the way, was the only legitimate daughter of England’s first superstar poet, George Gordon Byron. Who…

But, wait… that’s a completely different story.

Key Lessons from “The Innovators”

1.      Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
2.      The Power of Collaborations
3.      The Next Phase

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

If “The Innovators” can teach you one thing, it’s certainly this: starting from scratch is not an option. Not because you can’t – but because you shouldn’t.

No matter which discipline you’re interested in, somebody before you has already given you a head start. And when we say “head” – we do mean head.

Just think of that beautiful metaphor by Isaac Newton. If I have seen something more, he said, it was because I was a dwarf standing on the shoulder of giants.

Just as you can – because of these inventors.

The Power of Collaborations

They don’t say “two heads are better than one” for nothing. And “The Innovators” proves this over and over again.

Google needed both Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Apple wouldn’t have been Apple if there was only Steve Jobs – it needed a Steve Wozniak too. And as important as Bill Gates is, Microsoft’s “idea man” was actually Paul Allen.

The Next Phase

You can get a glimpse of the future if you got through enough volumes of history. And Walter Isaacson has done his fair share of historical research.

His opinion?

The next phase will mean the end of pouring old wines (books, songs, movies) into new digital bottles (eBooks, streaming services). It will be something different and totally unexpected.

Brace yourself.

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“The Innovators” Quotes

The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them. Click To Tweet Most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively. Click To Tweet The Internet was originally built to facilitate collaboration. By contrast, personal computers, especially those meant to be used at home, were devised as tools for individual creativity. Click To Tweet The truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences. Click To Tweet New platforms, services, and social networks are increasingly enabling fresh opportunities for individual imagination and collaborative creativity. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

“The Innovators” is a product of labor and love. So, much like the innovations it analyes. You know, those things you love so much because they facilitate your labor: the computer and the internet. The book is an epic account of their history, which is at times fascinating and eye-opening, and at times thrilling and moving. Not to mention, indispensable – at all times.

However, if you are not a fan of history, “The Innovators” is not for you. It is almost 600 pages long and abounds with names, biographies and connections which may tire you. In addition, if you want a more thorough approach, then you are surely not going to like Isaacson’s motto that getting into more details is the same as ruining a good story.

Now, it doesn’t matter if Isaacson’s right or not. The story he tells here, even if not flawless and exhaustive, is certainly a great one.    Take this summary with you and read anywhere! Download PDF:   

Top History Books

“Those who cannot learn from history,” wrote Madrid-born American philosopher George Santayana, “are doomed to repeat it”. Unfortunately, the fact that history does repeat itself – as Marx wrote, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” – shows that we haven’t really heeded to Santayana’s words.

Or, to quote a famous quip by George Bernard Shaw: “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”

So, maybe, it’s time to change that. And what better way to do this, but by leafing through few of the best history books ever written.

Some are here for their historical value, others for the in-depth analysis of specific time periods or historical figures. Most, however (about a third) are extensive overviews of human history, from the beginning of time until today.

And are both funnier and more educational than you’d expect or even wish for! The best history books are all yours!

#1. “Histories” by Herodotus

Histories SummaryThey don’t call you “The Father of History” for nothing, do they?

Born sometime around 484 in Halicarnassus (then part of the Persian Empire) – as far as we know – Herodotus was the first man in history to have shown an interest for what we would now refer to as historiography. Namely, he didn’t merely want to learn and retell the stories of yore; he wanted to fact-check them as well.

And the result is “The Histories,” his only book and the first historiographical work in all of Western literature. At times both biased and over-the-top fantastical, it is nevertheless even more reliable than you’d expect.

Primarily focusing on the rise of the Persian Empire, and the origins of the Greco-Persian wars, “The Histories” is, far and above, the most important source on these matters. And both the general public and historians enjoy it and quote it two and a half millennia after its appearance.

#2. “History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides

History of the Peloponnesian War SummaryHerodotus died about six years after the Ancient Greek world started a devastating quarter-of-a-century long war, which signaled not only an internal shift in power but also the end of Greece’s golden age.

We’re, of course, talking about the Peloponnesian War, fought between the Athens-led Delos league and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta.

Most of the things you know about it come from an Ancient Athenian, named Thucydides, whose book, “History of the Peloponnesian War” is widely credited as the first scientific work of history.

You see, Thucydides wanted to be better than Herodotus in describing the historical events he personally witnessed and experienced, so he further developed the quite recent historical method. His rules: impartiality and evidence-based cause-and-effect analysis, free from any reference to divine interventions.

Because, as he was aware, his work was “not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”

2,500 years later, we can only admire his farsightedness.

#3. “Alexander the Great” by Philip Freeman

Alexander the Great SummaryThe Peloponnesian War brought about the economic collapse of the Ancient Greek city-states. The loser, Athens, was merely a shadow of its former glory, and the winner, Sparta, spent decades fighting with poverty and hunger.

And, as they say, “when two people quarrel, a third rejoices.”

In this case, the third was the small kingdom of Macedon, which in less than half a century, would grow to become one of the largest empires in history, almost exclusively owing to two remarkable monarchs, Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great.

Philip Freeman’s “Alexander the Great” is considered to be “the first authoritative biography of Alexander the Great written for a general audience.” A comprehensive introduction to his life and accomplishments, the book follows the rise and rise of the Macedonian king from its very beginning in Macedonia to his final demise at the ends of the earth.

And, for the absolute novices – it even includes an excellent little glossary at the end!

#4. “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireAlexander’s empire was torn apart soon after his death. His descendants learned nothing from history. And, once again, the quarrel of many meant the blessing of one: Ancient Rome.

Obviously, you’ll easily find thousands of great books and movies about the glorious Roman years of Caesar and Augustus. However, not many focus on the decline of the Roman Empire.

And, by popular acclaim, none of them matches Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” a six-volume masterpiece which deservedly won Gibbon the name “the first modern historian of ancient Rome.”

Gigantic in both length and scope – it covers the period from 98 to 1590 – “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” became a model for later historians, both because of its heavy use of primary sources, and its secularizing tendency and tone.

Its enjoyably ironic and sumptuously aphoristic style has been unsurpassed to this day.

#5. “Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History” by Ibn Khaldun

Muqaddimah SummaryUnfortunately, more often than not, we tend to forget that civilization is not a Western phenomenon. And that, in fact, some of civilization’s most significant achievements have been made by people whose names you’ve probably never even heard of.

Arab historian Ibn Khaldun is one of these people. One of the most influential philosophers of the Middle Ages, his “Muqaddimah” (westernized as Ibn Khaldun’s “Prolegomena”) is such an important work that he deserves his place among history’s greatest solely on its merits.

Written in 1377, the book is the first known attempt by any human at writing a universal history. It’s also the first… On second thought, let’s look at Wikipedia’s description for a whole list of firsts.

Namely, Ibn Khaldun’s “Muqaddimah” is considered by some to be the first work dealing with the philosophy of history or the history of social sciences. It’s certainly the first to touch upon concepts such as demography, cultural history, economics, and even social Darwinism! Moreover, it’s also the first to take ecology and political history seriously.

Already quite a lot of reasons to read this book, right?

#6. “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany” by William L. Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich SummaryWilliam L. Shirer was originally a foreign correspondent for “Chicago Tribune,” before he became famous for his Berlin broadcasts for CBS. However, this fame would prove nothing compared to the one he’d earn after Simon & Schuster published his bestselling account of Nazi Germany, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”

Hailed by “The New York Times” as “one of the most important works of history of our time,” “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is an extensive (more than 1,200 pages) history of modern Germany. And it chronicles the years between the birth of Adolf Hitler and the end of World War II (1889-1945).

Based on his personal memories, the Nuremberg trials and British Foreign Office reports, captured Nazi documents and the diaries of Joseph Goebbels, Franz Halder, and Galeazzo Ciano, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is the most popular history of one of the most notorious regimes in human history.

#7. “The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991” by Eric Hobsbawm

The Age of Extremes SummaryBritish historian Eric Hobsbawm is widely considered to have been one of the greatest historians of the last two centuries. So much so, in fact, that his terse descriptions of both have become a staple in historiography: “the long 19th” and “the short 20th century.”

For our list, we opted for his book on the latter, “The Age of Extremes,” even though his trilogy about the former is equally lauded and respected. (Check it out! It consists of “The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848”, “The Age of Capital: 1848–1875” and “The Age of Empire: 1875–1914.”)

The Age of Extremes” is a largely pessimistic historiographical work, detailing, in about 640 pages, the failures of capitalism, nationalism, and state socialism.

It’s also a scathing critique of post-war art, described by Hobsbawm as “a succession of manifestos of despair,” and a constant reminder that “If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present.”

And yet, even quarter of a century after its first publication, nothing has changed.

#8. “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” by Walter Isaacson

The Innovators SummaryAnd now we move from the depths of the despair to the heights of hope!

“The Innovators” by Walter Isaacson features a decisively different tone, one that’s filled both with optimism and wonder at the mental capabilities of humans.

And how can it be any different?

The book is “a riveting, propulsive, and at times deeply moving” story of a host of figures who contributed to you being able to read this in your home, on a PC, via the Internet.

A more than a fascinating study of human progress and collaboration, “The Innovators” is divided into twelve chapters, ten of which cover different aspects of the digital revolution, framed by two dedicated to Ada Lovelace, the forgotten pioneer, the first computer programmer.

The main takeout: if politicians don’t want to learn from history, scientists may as well do. And, after all, they are our best shot at a more beautiful and humane future.

#9. “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn

A People's History of the United StatesIf you’re living in the United States, the chances are you already own this book. But, let’s face it, you knew this book would show up somewhere down this list, didn’t you?

A professor and a political scientist, a playwright and a social activist, Howard Zinn was, most of all, a historian writing with the voice – and in the name – of those who don’t get to write their histories. The small people, the marginalized ones.

You see, most historiographers (especially conservative ones) will tell you that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” (Carlyle). Zinn would beg to differ. His history is the history of the factory workers, of the unfairly treated immigrants, of the working poor, of the African Americans.

Or, as he puts it himself, a history of “a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make [the American ideals] a reality.”

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#10. “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel SummaryJared Diamond is one of the last great polymaths and one of the most revered intellectuals of our age.

And, just as you would expect, his 1997 study “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is not merely historiographical, but as transdisciplinary as possible. Its original subtitle, as pretentious as it may seem, describes it best: “A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years.”

And Diamond delivers on the promise big time!

The main idea of the poetically titled “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is relatively simple. Namely to prove that Eurasian hegemony is not due to some inherent intellectual or biological advantages of Eurasians, but due to thousands of environmental and geographical circumstances, some of which can easily be deduced.

And the best thing is that not many people other than Diamond are able to argument such a thesis. Because, you see, when we said polymath at the beginning, we meant geographer, biologist, ecologist, and anthropologist.

And “Guns, Germs, and Steel” employs all of these sciences to tell of a pretty different history.

#11. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens Summary“Sapiens” wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

In fact, Yuval Noah Harari, a modern Israeli historian, explicitly states that Jared Diamond’s masterpiece was by far the most profound inspiration on his book because it showed him that it was possible to “ask very big questions and answer them scientifically.”

So, he did pretty much the same in “Sapiens,” combining biology and history to rewrite the narrative of the most resilient human species, the homo sapiens.

Even though the book starts some 70,000 years ago with the Cognitive Revolution, Harari doesn’t forget to remind its readers that homo sapiens was only one of six different human species. In the second part of the book, he goes on describing the takeaways from the Agricultural Revolution, before breaking down the reasons for the Unification of Humankind and the history of the Scientific Revolution.

The book ends with a blood-curdling stream of visions of man’s future, the topic of Harari’s most recent book, “Homo Deus.”

#12. “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything SummaryHave you ever felt like your high school science textbooks were mind-numbing and boring to death? Sure, you could blame it on your lack of interest for science – after all, you didn’t care for either protons or Napoleon. That is if you’re not beloved British writer Bill Bryson.

You see, by his own admission, before embarking on the beautiful journey that is “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” Bryson knew almost nothing about the universe and its history.

However, he was reasonably sure that there was nothing wrong with him. Science was great; to understand our history through it – even better. It was the textbooks: they weren’t fun enough, and they weren’t passionate – at all.

And that’s where “A Short History of Nearly Everything” comes in. It details everything from the Big Bang to the advent of civilization in an engaging, humorous, and layman language. You’ll feel ten times smarter after finishing this book.

And you’ll finish it in the blink of an eye!

#13. “The Evolution of Everything: How Small Things Transform the World” by Matt Ridley

The Evolution of Everything SummaryIn a letter sent to an Anglican bishop, Lord Acton wrote two sentences which are as widely misattributed as they are ignored: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”

Just like Howard Zinn, Matt Ridley – a British biologist with a Ph.D. in zoology – doesn’t believe in history being a string of biographies of the great men. But, he’s even more radical than Zinn. In his opinion, history (and, precisely, progress) is just something that happens!

And “The Evolution of Everything” is his attempt to test out his idea in sixteen different areas, ranging from physics and biology, through the economy and the education to the government and interpersonal moral.

It’s a book of fascinating breadth and depth. And even more interesting conclusions. Like, for example, the one that even though Einstein was a great guy, the theory of relativity would have been conceptualized even if he hadn’t existed; by, say, a certain Hendrik Lorentz.

Why? Well, because 23 different people invented the light bulb around the same time.

Just read the book. You’ll see what we’re talking about.

#14. “A History of the World in 6 Glasses: How Your Favorite Drinks Changed the World” by Tom Standage

A History of the World in 6 Glasses SummaryYou can split up the history of the world in periods or chapters – but in 6 glasses? Now, how would that look like? The simple answer is: as exciting as you would hope for and much more thorough than you would expect.

Tom Standage’s “A History of the World in 6 Glasses,” tells the story of the world – from the Stone Age to the 21st century – by carefully examining the history of six different beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. And the results are as magnificent as unexpected!

For example, beer contributed to the creation of civilization; so much so, in fact, that it’s described in the world’s oldest literary work “Gilgamesh” as “the drink of the civilized man.” Wine, on the other hand, was how the Greek cultural conquests came to be.

Spirits fueled the Age of Exploration, and the French Revolution started in a coffeehouse. Sandwich “tea” between “Boston” and “party” and you immediately get its significance.

And is there a better way to describe globalization than “Coca-Cola”?

#15. “The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley” by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Genius SummaryEven as a wildcard, it’s somewhat strange that one of our top 15 history books is titled “The Geography of Genius.” But, the title is as accurate as it is misleading. Even though “A History of the World in 8 Genius Clusters” might have made a lot more sense.

Because, that’s how you can best sum up “The Geography of Genius” in 10 words or less. In it, respected journalist Eric Weiner sets off on a journey both around the world and throughout history to discover why some places, at specific points of time, started begetting geniuses, seemingly at will and in multitudes.

The places? Ancient Athens, Song Dynasty Hangzhou, Renaissance Florence, 18th century Edinburgh, 19th century Calcutta, Vienna of the 1900s (twice), and the Silicon Valley of today.

Walter Isaacson – see #8 above – describes this book most accurately when he says that it is “a charming mix of history and wisdom cloaked as a rollicking travelogue filled with colorful characters.” And Dan Gilbert, though not as stylish, is as truthful: “an intellectual odyssey, a traveler’s diary, and a comic novel all rolled into one. Smart, original, and utterly delightful.”

Now, dare we say: “genius”?    Take this summary with you and read anywhere! Download PDF:   

Steve Jobs Biography: Forty Interviews – One Summary here!

Steve Jobs pdf Biography

Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson

MicroSummary: Written at the request of Mr Apple Inc. himself, the eponymous biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is based on hundreds of interviews and an unprecedented access to Steve Jobs’ life. Adapted in the 2015 Danny Boyle blockbuster, the authorized memoir follows Jobs’ path from an adopted child to a supreme creative genius.

Steve Jobs is not a name. It is almost a noun as “apple”. Or “computer”. Or “cartoon“. Or whatever noun you may be thinking of. You heard it a thousand times and you think you know what it really means without a preliminary lesson. And as every respectable noun, he arouses curiosity: what are his roots? When was he the subject or when was he only a direct complement? Continue Reading…