How to be a genius : Paul Barker

How To Be A Genius: A Handbook For The Aspiring Smarty PantsHow To Be A Genius: A Handbook For The Aspiring Smarty Pants by Paul Barker

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I can see where this is coming from, I really can. Essentially it’s a Horrible Histories-esque spin on how to be a genius, covering topics such as ‘The Evil Genius’, ‘Fields of Genius’ and ‘The Legacy of Genius’. And, as a whole, it succeeds. There’s some fun in it and a lot of nicely put together sections. I really enjoyed the genuine love of the subject – and it is a fascinting subject. I mean, who knows how we achieve genuius? There’s so much here to play with.

And, in parts, it succeeds. It is incredibly useful in many ways in that it provides a taxonomy of genius for the younger market. This is a rare and unusual thing and one which I salute wholeheartedly. I also approved how they didn’t remain on the ‘positive’ angles of genius and, even though it was brief, discussed individuals such as Stalin and Hitler. It’s an interesting and challenging angle to take.

What I also enjoyed was how it dealt with the pros and cons of extreme talent. There’s also some really smart (and lovely) illustrations throughout, particularly in the genius case studies that occur at regular intervals. These illustrations are vaguely cubist in style and sort of quirkily cool.

As a whole though this book struggles and I found it very problematic. It’s one of those books that rather over-defines certain terms whilst neglecting others and ultimately loses the wit and irreverence it started with. There’s a lot of fun at the start of this and then, somehow, it rather gets lost.

Both in the case studies and throughout the book, there’s a tendency to gender giftedness as masculine. Whilst I quite accept the point of this book that the lack of women geniuses is due to the “patriarchal culture” (39) I do not accept that this is a view that we should be promulgating. Illustrations such as the leggy blonde with the tiny bespectacled gentleman(96), the seduction tips (“Wear low-cut lab coats”, hang out in galleries, fainting occasionally” – 102), are, whilst clearly intended humorously, deeply troublesome to me.

And this is a massive shame because there are areas where this book is brilliant and superb at describing the signs and nature of genius between the sexes. I loved the biography of Marie Curie and his section on the ‘genius gender’ (p39) is intensely promising, mentioning several interesting artists I’m keen to find out more upon. But then that’s the first and last time we hear of them, which sort of confirms the point that women can only achieve genius ‘when allowed’.

There’s a lot that’s good about this book, and a lot that’s less good, and I think the problem lies in the question of audience. At present this book is trying to be everything to everyone, at least superficially, and I think underneath it’s a rather different matter.

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