Review of “Great Men of Genius,” by Mike Daisey

If you know of Mike Daisey and are reading this blog, it is probably from one of two works. In 2002 he published 21 Dog Years: Doing Time at Amazon.com, about life in the .com bubble in Seattle. I worked at a .com in the Midwest at the time, and found Daisey’s work to be a funny version of what I was doing, but at a much more glorious and wonderful scale. Last year in Seattle, my wife and I watched him perform his one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs, which intermixed his love of Apple products, the life of Steve Jobs, and his journey to a factory that actually manufactures Apple products in southern China.

Great Men of Genius is composed of interlocking biographical dramas of Bertolt Brecht, PT Barnum, Nikola Tesla, and L Ron Hubbard. Each of these monologues are used to explore some theme, such as honesty, bravery, discovery, or hope.

Great Men of Genius stands in between these two works, not just chronologically (21 Dog Years was published in 2002, Great Men of Genius in 2006, and The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs in 2011), but in terms of content as well. While Dog Years concerns Daisey’s work at Amazon and the .com boom, there is really one one narrative, concerning life in Seattle at the turn of the millenium. Agony and Ecstacy on the other hand focuses on two different times and places — the birth of Apple in California in the 1970s and 1980s, and life in a Chinese factory in the 21st century, united through Mike Daisey’s experience of them. In Great Men of Genius, Daisey presents two parallel narratives, one of the life of the subject, and another revolving around some portion of his own life. While the four monologues stand alone, there is a natural building in the depth and meaningfulness of the stories. In the last, L. Ron Hubbard, the Scientologist military ‘heroism’ is placed up against the actual heroism of Daisey’s grandfather, whose deeds were much greyer, morally complex, and real.

I recommend Great Men of Genius, which I listened to on Audible. Even more I recommend The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs, which in many ways is the perfection of this type of narrative. Agony and Ecstacy, in which Daisey mentions he never met any Chinese worker who complained about being underpaid, is the smartest description of Chinese manufacturing I’ve read from someone who is not a scholar and not in the industry. A 60 minute versio of the show is available online, and Mike Daisey was recently featured on an episode of This American Life.

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