Benjamin Franklin: An American Life - Review

As part of my Day Zero Project goals, I am slowly working through the list of unlistened to audiobooks that I have (40 in all!) and have been working backward from longest to shortest.  I was so excited recently when Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson came up next.

I have always loved studying Benjamin Franklin.  When I was 20, I read his autobiography as part of a college class and came to understand Franklin as sort of the quintessential American ideal; curious, industrious, always striving toward self-improvement, always charming and affable.

While I admittedly have an affection for biographies in general (it is probably my favorite genre), this biography has been the easiest and most interesting to listen to by far.  The writer is clearly fascinated with his subject, and Franklin doesn't disappoint when it comes to quirks and stories to tell.

The biography recounts Franklin's early days and goes into great detail about his intellectual curiosities and the friendships that he struck up.  Many have called Franklin "America's first philosopher" but perhaps it was not that he was so very wise, but that he was so willing to make observations and write them down.  He was intelligent, for sure, and methodical in his approach to understanding scientific ideas, such as electricity, how calories are burned, and the invention of bifocals.  But more than intelligent, he was hungry for knowledge and often sacrificed food in order to buy books.

Benjamin Franklin was also sort of obsessive about personal morality.  As a young man, he sort of wavered on his stance about a diety, but he firmly believed in a strong moral character as the backbone for a good life and a healthy nation.  He kept a written personal contract of what he believed were essential good morals, called The Thirteen Virtues, where he lists among other things industriousness, frugality, and cleanliness.  That is not to say that he always took his own advice.  Having written his thirteen virtues as a young man, by the time he was in his later life, he had become sedentary and developed gout from overindulgence.

Franklin was also a charmer.  Even though there is no evidence of actual infidelity in his life after he married his wife, he had numerous flirtatious friendships, mostly with young women, where he walked a line between a doting father figure and a flirtatious courtier.  The letters that remain and that are quoted in this text are fascinating, as the courtly love play between him and these ladies is so elegantly written, always playful and witty, while still maintaining that fatherly affection as well.  These ladies were devoted to him in their writing, many of these friendships lasting decades with the women especially concerned with his opinion of their life choices.  He always gave his advice and offered his affection freely and enthusiastically.

Franklin was an avid learner, an inventor, an observer, a statesman, and someone who used grace and charm to relate to those around him.  His biography is as exciting as anyone could hope theirs to be.

This audiobook has been such an entertaining thing to listen to that I have even listened while on the treadmill, which is something I never do.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes history or just wants to read about America's first great philosopher!


  1. "American ideal; curious, industrious, always striving toward self-improvement, always charming and affable." Well now I know why you always dreamed of leaving Canada and becoming an American! Sounds an awful lot like a former Canadian I know :-)


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