The Wiley Handbook Of Genius edited by Dean Keith Simonton (book review).

I should point out from the start that this is probably the most expensive first edition book that I’ve ever selected to review. To tell the truth, when I picked it out of the Wiley new releases, I was concentrating more on the subject matter of genius than the price. I have to say this from the start or if I enthuse you too much and you see the price at the bottom, you’re going to give a big sigh. ‘The Wiley Handbook Of Genius’ has the high price of £120 which might be the cost of getting 29 college dons to give their views on the subject.


Although the various geniuses are discussed, although quite why former President George Bush was included as one beats me, this isn’t a book about specific ones. Then again, why include Elvis Presley and John Lennon and have Jimi Hendrix on the cover but not in the content? Is the measure of genius being one of a kind or their significance in the world? Then again, creativity as know from our own genre always shows a flair for genius or unique thoughts?

The basis for genius extends beyond talent, creativity and skill but the extensive practice to make it better than expected. It is also expands to choice and how the better selections are made. Oddly, one thing none of these writers ponder on is that geniuses don’t see themselves as being them. Speaking as someone who is regarded by others as a ‘natural creative’, I’m just doing what comes naturally and more surprised that other people don’t have similar talents to any level. After all, seeing others as you would see yourself is common and it’s invariably a surprise when it isn’t. Therefore, the perspective of their analysis is like the blind looking at how someone can see and can therefore only gauge the results of the genius. Trying to do it as mathematical graphs does seem to me as trying too hard though.

One thing for sure, IQ is not seen as being a requirement and they see many geniuses as not being good at everything and just superior in only some things. Maybe I’m digging too deep but no one seems to look at if there are inherited geniuses are and follow bloodlines or is it purely by chance. Something my late Dad and I share is a natural problem-solving talent but it’s in different things from each other, to avoid being in direct competition. After he died, my Mum was surprised to see me doing things that he used to do. Perhaps with not as much finesse but I was a quick learner having absorbed how he used to do things but was never given the opportunity to do before. Talent will out…eventually.

When it came to genius military leaders, I was surprised that neither T.E. Lawrence or Bernard Montgomery were noted. Unlike those noted, both of them were smart enough to walk away when their jobs were done. Lawrence went as far as to conceal his identity when he re-enlisted in WW2 than rely on his fame to get a superior rank. Success doesn’t mean you want to continue doing something until you’re dated as so many of the examples given are shown. The one thing common in the examples given is that they were all leaders but I often wondered reading here was that it was just people rising to the challenge than having any genius. After all, if there hadn’t been major wars, most of them wouldn’t have had such distinguished careers.

The examination of gifted children did raise one odd problem in that it rarely carries on into adulthood as they try to adjust to getting along with other people than remain non-conformist outsiders. Having a talent for something doesn’t always mean being a genius to exploit it. With precocious talented children they are just seen as being unusual than having abilities, outside of the arts, that would be useful in work clearly shows a lack of direction. A genius would surely find a way around this problem. Maybe too much pressure is put on them to succeed while young than allowing their talents to mature into adulthood at their own pace.

Something that did strike me and I’ve commented on elsewhere is the amount of hours spent by people who become virtuosos in their fields. Considering the amount of repetition involved, you’re either a perfectionist trying to hit the right marks all the time, really love what you’re doing, blind obsessive or capable of tapping into some autistic pattern where you never tire of doing such things. It’s probably a combination of any of these but I’m surprised this hasn’t been explored by these people.

The discussions on genius in the arts and sciences only establishes that it happens young in their careers far more than why. From my perspective, I can’t help think it has less to do with age and rather more to do with not being beaten down to conform to the existing system. When it comes to writing, several SF writers are noted as being significant for fresh ideas, although none in the past thirty years and none from the other genres. Although it did raise an eyebrow, I can’t help wonder if spotting geniuses is subjective in certain areas. Of the significant films, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is considered as one of the canon amongst a selection of other interesting films across the board.

Trying to analyse what makes a genius without interviewing any that are still living still seems to be at odds with understanding what makes them tick. It’s a puzzle why the likes of Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking aren’t even noted. There are obviously levels of talent and non-conformity involved or these people would never step out and question what was done in the past and offer new solutions that would over-turn what was accepted in the past. Without that, you would never have your Newtons and Einsteins. With the way universities are set to conform to current scientific practices these days, are such people being prevented from coming through? In things like this, I don’t think any of these writers go far enough as to wonder where or why the new geniuses aren’t rising to the top today in anything other than big business.

When it comes to the arts geniuses, I agree with them that it can often take practice to make people stand out. However, there is still a matter of it depends who is buying the work and how they measure what they like. They do acknowledge that the likes of Vincent van Gogh only became famous after his death. Is it any wonder that artists coming up today aren’t that renown enough that current day Americans don’t know any of them by name from their own country? I would have to confess that even some of the current British artists, like Tracy Emin or Damian Hirst, I would question as to whether they had true talent or the ability to fool the critics. I’m sure a lot of you reading here would measure art talent as to being able to convey a scene painted with some realism or imagined with some level of definitely not of this Earth as to show some level of genius than something done in abstract that has to be explained as to what is going on which reminds me of the emperor’s new clothes.

As you can tell from my comments, I’m definitely reacting to this book although I’m unsure if that is what they intended. Again, I should point out that these university professors are attempting to qualify what makes a genius a genius and this book is at least a start in making some direction in this. In other areas, I don’t think they’ve gone far enough and pontificating as to what is or isn’t definitely hasn’t satisfied me.

Don’t go after this book if you expect to see if it can establish your own genius potential or whether they have been able to tie it down to any particular talent. It will give some indication of what abilities they are looking at but none of the things that might hinder such people developing or using their talent to help society.

GF Willmetts

June 2014

(pub: Wiley-Blackwell. 350 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £120.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-118-36740-7)

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