#REVIEW: Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

2020 thus far has been an interesting year for reading. 2019 had so many stellar books in it that I had to expand my traditional end-of-the-year Best Of list from ten to fifteen. In general, the quality of what I’ve been reading this year has been reasonably high, but there haven’t been all that many books that I was doing backflips over so far. There have definitely been standouts, of course, but nothing where I was rattling cages and shouting you must read this while running pantsless through the streets.

So it’s pretty cool to have identified my first major WHY DON’T YOU OWN THIS BOOK ALREADY of the year, finally, and even more interesting that it’s turned out to be nonfiction. There are usually a couple of nonfiction books in my top 10, but never one that I thought might be the best book of the year, and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci is absolutely a book that I could see being my favorite of 2020 once the end of the year rolls around. Assuming we’re all still alive, that is.

I have read one other book of Isaacson’s: I was a big fan of his biography of Benjamin Franklin, and having now read this one I’ve got my sights on his book about Albert Einstein. You may notice a theme here; Isaacson very much enjoys writing about geniuses, and one of the best things about this book is the way his sheer enthusiasm for Leonardo shines through every page. This is a book about, with no real fear of contradiction, one of human history’s most interesting people, written by someone who is utterly fascinated by his subject, and it just cannot help but being a tremendously compelling and educational read.

(Two things I learned about da Vinci: I was aware that he was able to write backwards and mirror-imaged, but I was not aware that he always wrote backwards and mirror-imaged. He was left-handed and just taught himself to write that way to save time and keep from smearing ink. Similarly, one of the ways his work is validated when its source is unclear is to look for signs that it was produced by a left-handed person. Second, and I’m not sure how common knowledge this is and it’s possible y’all are going to be surprised I didn’t know this, but he was gay. Not, like, “for the times” gay, or “if he was alive now he’d be” gay, but out and fabulous gay. There apparently exists one of his notebooks where he’s put a to-do list on one of the pages, and one of the items on the list is “go to the bathhouse to look at naked men.”)

(Also, and I’ve Tweeted at him and I’ll update if he responds, but I’d love to know how much work in language Isaacson had to do specifically to write this. I suspect the differences between Renaissance-era Italian and modern Italian are not minor, even before you get to everything da Vinci wrote requiring a mirror to read, and given his other books Isaacson may not even have known Italian before writing the book– every other book he’s written was about someone who, at least, worked primarily in English.)

I can’t pass up talking about the book as a physical object, either. I got the book in paperback, and the paper used both for the cover and for the pages is thick and textured in a way that makes the book an absolute joy to hold. In addition, it’s full of pictures, as one would imagine it would have to be, but they’re scattered throughout rather than as a tip-in in the middle of the book, and every single one of them is in full color. I don’t recall how much I spent for this book, but I’m genuinely surprised it wasn’t $40. Amazon currently has it for twelve bucks. That’s madness for a book of this high quality; this could not have been cheap to print.

I am also in love with the way Isaacson talks about art. I had to take an art history class as a random requirement to get my teaching MA, and while I honestly didn’t do terribly well in the class, reading people who really know a lot about art talking about paintings is something that I will never get tired of even if to a large extent I don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about. Isaacson can drop a paragraph about the emotional resonance of a detail in someone’s eyebrows that I can’t even see, and a good proportion of this book is dedicated to analyzing da Vinci’s artwork, both finished and unfinished. His chapter about the Mona Lisa is a masterwork. I couldn’t have written something like this to save my life; I just don’t have the eye for detail or the vocabulary for it, but it was an immense pleasure to read.

Ten stars, six thumbs up, one finger oddly pointed toward the heavens, go find this and read it right away.

1:07 PM, Wednesday June 17: 2,143,193 confirmed cases and 117,129 Americans dead.

Published by

Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.

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