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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life [Hardcover]

Walter Isaacson
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 1 2003
In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Einstein and Steve Jobs, shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character.

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin’s life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Walter Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the runaway apprentice who became, over the course of his eighty-four-year life, America’s best writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical and ingenious political leaders. He explores the wit behind Poor Richard’s Almanac and the wisdom behind the Declaration of Independence, the new nation’s alliance with France, the treaty that ended the Revolution, and the compromises that created a near-perfect Constitution.

In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin’s amazing life, showing how he helped to forge the American national identity and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.

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From Amazon

Benjamin Franklin, writes journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson, was that rare Founding Father who would sooner wink at a passer-by than sit still for a formal portrait. What's more, Isaacson relates in this fluent and entertaining biography, the revolutionary leader represents a political tradition that has been all but forgotten today, one that prizes pragmatism over moralism, religious tolerance over fundamentalist rigidity, and social mobility over class privilege. That broadly democratic sensibility allowed Franklin his contradictions, as Isaacson shows. Though a man of lofty principles, Franklin wasn't shy of using sex to sell the newspapers he edited and published; though far from frivolous, he liked his toys and his mortal pleasures; and though he sometimes gave off a simpleton image, he was a shrewd and even crafty politician. Isaacson doesn't shy from enumerating Franklin’s occasional peccadilloes and shortcomings, in keeping with the iconoclastic nature of our time--none of which, however, stops him from considering Benjamin Franklin "the most accomplished American of his age," and one of the most admirable of any era. And here’s one bit of proof: as a young man, Ben Franklin regularly went without food in order to buy books. His example, as always, is a good one--and this is just the book to buy with the proceeds from the grocery budget. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Following closely on the heels of Edmund Morgan's justly acclaimed Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson's longer biography easily holds its own. How do the two books differ? Isaacson's is more detailed; it lingers over such matters as the nature of Franklin's complex family circumstances and his relations with others, and it pays closer attention to each of his extraordinary achievements. Morgan's is more subtle and reflective. Each in its different way is superb. Isaacson (now president of the Aspen Institute, he is the former chairman of CNN and a Henry Kissinger biographer) has a keen eye for the genius of a man whose fingerprints lie everywhere in our history. The oldest, most distinctive and multifaceted of the founders, Franklin remains as mysterious as Jefferson. After examining the large body of existing Franklin scholarship as skillfully and critically as any scholar, Isaacson admits that his subject always "winks at us" to keep us at bay-which of course is one reason why he's so fascinating. Unlike, say, David McCullough's John Adams, which seeks to restore Adams to public affection, this book has no overriding agenda except to present the story of Franklin's life. Unfortunately, for all its length, it's a book of connected short segments without artful, easy transitions So whether this fresh and lively work will replace Carl Van Doren's beloved 1938 Benjamin Franklin in readers' esteem remains to be seen.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This the best bio of BF out there July 5 2004
Format:Paperback
I'm giving Walter Isaacson's biography five stars for its fairness, its comprehensiveness, accuracy, the incisiveness of its insights, but most of all, for its readability. I think this is what puts it above other Franklin biographies I've read - it somehow manages the feat of being a very engaging, pleasant read, from the first page to the last, while plumbing each interesting depth of Franklin's life.
In particular, I admired how Isaacson explored the nature of Franklin's religious belief, letting Franklin speak for himself on what he felt man's duty to God and his neighbor consisted of. I also appreciated the seriousness with which Isaacson dealt with Franklin's often underappreciated scientific achievements, clarifying just how beneficial the effects of his experiments with lightning and electricity were almost immediately (within a very short time, many lives were saved around the world just because of Franklin's lightning rod, etc.). Lastly, as readers of Franklin's autobiography know, he was very funny, and I was glad that Isaacson allowed that charm and humor to be displayed.
Edmund S. Morgan's recent biography of Franklin, for all its strengths, has to take second place to Isaacson's outstanding book. I know this review probably sounds like it was written by Walter Isaacson himself under a pseudonym or something, but the truth is, I can't really think of a single criticism to make of this one.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding biography of a remarkable man July 15 2004
Format:Hardcover
Walter Isaacson, former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time Magazine, has written an immensely readable and informative biography of Benjamin Franklin that never gets too stuffy or bogged down in meaningless minutae. Instead, we are treated to a fascinating glimpse at a man who was early America's greatest publisher, scientist, politician, inventor and diplomat.
We all have our pre-conceived notions of Franklin, including him out flying his kite to try and link electricity with lightning, or him dozing off during the lengthy and tedious deliberations at the Constitutional Convention. Isaacson peels back the layers of the story a bit, reminding us how often our vision of Franklin derives from Franklin's own pen, such as the vision of the young teen arriving in Philadelphia with loaves of bread, looking ridiculous as he passed by the window of his future wife (a scene written by Franklin at age 65 when he penned his autobiography).
The book does a very good job not only of recounting the many accomplishments of Franklin, but also of exploring his middle class ideals and values. For example, Isaacson's book reminds us that while Franklin was never terribly pious or religious throughout his life, he favored organized religion because churches encouraged citizens to behave well, and to do good things. There was always a sense of pragmatism and public service in everything Franklin did and believed in. As a publisher, if he thought a public policy or official was wrong and needed to be criticized publicly, he would invent characters (to avoid libel suits) to write humorous and sometimes scathing attacks that were basically anonymous.
The book also dwells repeatedly on the Franklin's love and admiration of the middle class as the real core of American society.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Sweeping View of the Life of Benjamin Franklin June 22 2004
Format:Hardcover
During his 84 year life, Benjamin was his country's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, business strategist, and perhaps, its most practical political thinker.
Walter Isaacson, formerly CNN Chairman and Time Magazine Editor, provides us with a 590 page portrait of the Founding Father who winks at us. This revolutionary leader prized pragmatics, religious tolerance and social mobility. Isaacson pictures a man with a vision for his new country that was based on middle class virtues and values. He pictures a man instinctively comfortable with the strength and wisdom of the country's shopkeepers.
He pictures a man who based his morality on leading a "good" life, serving his country and on the belief that salvation would be achieved by good works.
Franklin was a complex person. And Isaacson succeeds in drawing lessons from his life that are more complex that those usual drawn by founding father's foes and fans. I, for one, am grateful author had the time to thoughtfully explore them. These lessons are as vital today as they were during the revolutionary time in which Benjamin Franklin lived.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Model of a Renaissance Man June 17 2004
Format:Hardcover
Benjamin Franklin, though grouped as a founding father with all the others, probably does not receive the accolades he should for his involvement in establishing the United States as an independent nation. The most fascinating aspect of Franklin's life goes along with the title of the book - Franklin was such an ordinary man - of the "meddling" people, as he put it. Benjamin Franklin epitomizes the American Life and Walter Isaacson does a great job proving his point.
This book was a fascinating read that reintroduced me to the American Ideal that has probably been largely forgotten. A man like Franklin could only have existed and thrived in America. The principles he practiced, and the freedoms he loved, are the ones many of us hold dear today, though we largely take them for granted.
Franklin was the epitome of the Renaissance Man - scientist, philosopher, writer, politician - he touched on many subjects and excelled in them all. What an amazing sight it must have been to witness the meeting of Franklin and Virgil in Paris, as this novel describes.
After reading this book I immediately began reading other books about the Founding Fathers. A great read!
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent
Incredible book,incredible man and incredible writer.
It reads so fast and interesting.
During reading I became so much more productive myself as
Franklin would make... Read more
Published 17 months ago by bitchass
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Portrayal of the Most Versatile American
Let me first start off by saying that I have read few biographies. But Isaacson made a biography that is both readable and balanced between Franklin's personal and professional... Read more
Published on July 18 2004 by Sheila Tillman
1.0 out of 5 stars Walter Isaacson: Mr. Shallow, An American Life
As a direct descendant of Simon Meredith (1663-1745), father of Hugh Meredith, Benjamin Franklin's erstwhile business partner in Philadelphia, I looked forward with great interest... Read more
Published on July 11 2004 by Thomas L. Markey
2.0 out of 5 stars What One Should Expect from the Head of CNN
Isaacson's writing style impressed me for a short time, but he becomes rather pedantic quickly, dwelling on seemingly minor points for long periods until you just can't take any... Read more
Published on June 27 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing and informative...
The biographies about old Ben Franklin, both juvenile and scholarly, would fill several bookshelves. Read more
Published on June 12 2004 by C. Middleton
5.0 out of 5 stars An American Rediscovered
Walter Isaacson's book, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, is an insightful and impeccably researched piece of scholarly work. Read more
Published on June 11 2004 by Edward P. Matos
5.0 out of 5 stars An American Renaissance Man
Publisher, philosopher, scientist, inventor, and statesman - Walter Isaacson's "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life" is a fascinating portrait of our Founding Father's most senior... Read more
Published on June 9 2004 by Gary Griffiths
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding
This book its easy to read. The author has taken so much information available to write a biography in chronological about one of the foremost founders of this nation. Read more
Published on June 7 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars A great effort.
Walter Isaacson's "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life" is an excellent biography of the eldest of the American founding fathers. Read more
Published on June 2 2004 by Silence Dogood
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