June 5, 2020

Genius & Anxiety by Norman Lebrecht

This has certainly been a time for book-lovers to get immersed in history and large novels. While some book reviewers have suggested picking up War and Peace or One Hundred Years of Solitude, I chose books to learn more about Jewish and Irish history.

Norman Lebrecht has written a jam-packed history book entitled Genius & Anxiety – How Jews Changed the World, 1847 – 1947. Freud influenced how we view sex and psychology. Einstein pioneered concepts of time and physics. Marx mapped out the elements of communism versus capitalism. Kafka and Proust changed how we view literature. Sarah Bernhardt revolutionized acting and celebrity.

Less well-known people also contributed to our modern world. Karl Landsteiner helped make blood transfusions and major surgery a reality. Paul Ehrlich helped formulate chemotherapy. Rosalind Franklin paved the way for genetic science. Siegfried Marcus may have created the first motor car.

Lebrecht frequently writes about music so there is ample mention of seminal composers like Mendelssohn in the 19th century and Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein in the 20th. He highlights Korngold and Eisler on the West coast and Leonard Bernstein in the east. In truth, what would Hollywood or Broadway look and sound like without Jewish creativity? Name three famous American composers and one reels off George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Bernstein.

The book’s brilliance is particularly in Lebrecht’s description of what was happening in the world as he profiles these creative people. Industrialization, the World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Nazis, the McCarthy era, the creation of the state of Israel, all figure into this expansive canvas. Lebrecht does not argue that Jews are genetically smarter and more talented than others but that they have a strong tradition of culture and education. Historically being outsiders may have also caused them to think “out of the box” and push new ideas in everything from science, politics, business and the arts.

Genius & Anxiety is the type of book you could either absorbingly read cover to cover, or skip around in, according to your tastes.

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