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Genius – a very short introduction – Andrew Robinson ***

One of OUP’s pocket series ‘a very short introduction’ (books with a cover design that says ‘dull’), this title takes on the thorny topic of genius. It’s hard to say whether or not this subject is science at all. There is certainly some science in the book – when looking at studies of the way the brain works and the nature of intelligence – but the concept of ‘genius’ itself is such a fuzzy one that is probably more a media label than anything meaningful.
Apart from anything else, as Andrew Robinson makes clear, we can’t agree on what genius is, nor on who is a genius. There are a few exceptions – few people could argue about Newton or Einstein – but in many other cases the validity of the claim is open to question. What I found fascinating was that Robinson says that in some cases genius is disputed – for example Picasso – while in others it’s undisputed – for example Mozart. I was surprised that Picasso is questioned while at the same time (I know I’m in a minority) I really don’t see what the fuss is about Mozart, whose music seems mostly trivial to me. As another example of the subjectivity of this label, Robinson constantly refers to Virginia Woolf as a genius. What? Is he serious? More celebrity than genius I would have said.
The more I read this book, the more I thought that this thing being labelled genius is an entirely different concept between (say) science, art & music. However, for some reason this difference doesn’t come though in the text until very late in the book, and when Robinson does cover it, what he says is not very satisfactory. He never explores the thesis, for example, that art only has a value that is set by fashion – genius in art is inevitably going to be subjective – while science can have an objective assessment of value that makes it much easier to pinpoint genius (even if the collective nature of scientific work makes it harder to assign this genius to an individual).
All in all it’s a good little book in that makes you think about the nature of genius – but an irritating topic, because in the end it’s a subject that is so arbitrary. A work of genius? Probably not.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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