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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Written by: Walter Isaacson
Narrated by: Nelson Runger
Length: 24 hrs and 40 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (48 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us - an ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings.

In best-selling author Walter Isaacson's vivid and witty full-scale biography, we discover why Franklin turns to us from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind his new-fangled spectacles. In Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson shows how Franklin defines both his own time and ours.

The most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. America's first great publicist, he was consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity. His guiding principle was a "dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people". Few of his fellow founders felt this comfort with democracy so fully, and none so intuitively.

In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin's amazing life, from his days as a runaway printer to his triumphs as a statesman, scientist, and Founding Father. He chronicles Franklin's tumultuous relationship with his illegitimate son and grandson, his practical marriage, and his flirtations with the ladies of Paris. He also shows how Franklin helped to create the American character and why he has a particular resonance in the 21st century.

©2003 Walter Isaacson (P)2011 Simon & Schuster

What the critics say

"The most readable full-length Franklin biography available." ( The Washington Post Book World)
"Energetic, entertaining, and worldly." ( The New Yorker)
"In its common sense, clarity and accessibility, it is a fitting reflection of Franklin's sly pragmatism.... This may be the book that most powerfully drives a new pendulum swing of the Franklin reputation." ( The New York Times Book Review)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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The Foundation of a Father of the Republic

Much is made of the foibles of great men. Although flawed in many ways Franklin was and is a remarkable historical figure. Isaacson’s treatise on his life and work captures the essence of many of the facets of America to this day. A long but fascinating read.

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You will love this Franklin!

I am writing this review with about 1 hr remaining in the over 24 hrs of this excellent audiobook. No need to extoll here the extraordinary life of Benjamin Franklin. This review is about the book by Isaacson and audio performance by Nelson Runger.

I`m quite sad, as I will miss the characters that came alive in the text and the reading, Temple, Benny, Polly, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the various Franklin personas, and so, so many more. If you could fast-forward to the telling of the night that John Adams and Franklin shared a room and a bed, a night ol`Ben had a cold yet insisted the window stay open, and curmudgeonly paranoid Adams insisted on having it closed, and both arguing in an Odd Couple dynamic, you will fall down laughing at the ultimate humanity and flaws of these two great men.

I started with Jobs, then Leonardo, now moved to Franklin and have been thrilled. Next will come Einstein, can`t wait. Many thanks for Messrs Isaacson and Runger, well done.

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Brad Barker
  • 2013-06-08

My kinda founding father...mostly...

This was a very good biography, which is something I've come to pleasingly expect when I start a Walter Isaacson work. My knowledge of Benjamin Franklin was limited to the near caricature of him taught in school back in my day, along with little bits and pieces from various documentaries I've watched during my adult life. I had no feeling for who the real person was behind the historical figure. Now, I believe I do, somewhat. Which, in itself reflects a good review of this book. Without going into too much of a summary of Benjamin Franklin himself, I think it's worth noting the light that the book shines on him. Ben Franklin was a practical man. A man who, when he saw a need, tried to find a practical solution to address that need. Whether it be protecting a house from bolts of lightning with his lightning rod, to helping design a constitution for a fledgling country whose states were in dire need of it. He believed in the middle class, and believed that excessive wealth, luxury, idleness and inheritable elitism was the root of much of the corruption in England at the time. He was a man who believed in religious tolerance, like many of the founding fathers, because religious dogma could be divisive, and not conducive democratic public discourse. He was a man who understood compromise and the need for it in a true democracy. Personally, he had vices like anyone else. He tended to enjoy spending time with his friends abroad better than his family back home. He often enjoyed the company various women throughout his life, to the dismay of some of his more puritanical political opponents. Contrary to many of his "Poor Richard" aphorisms, in his later years Franklin enjoyed late evenings with friends, wine, and chess. In the end, the book leaves you with the feeling that you may have known person behind the image a bit. He was a remarkable person, and this book is an excellent read for anyone interested in Benjamin Franklin, the man, and the historical figure.

77 of 79 people found this review helpful

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  • Cathi
  • Miami, Florida, United States
  • 2013-07-20

Good book, not crazy about the narrator

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes, if they are interested in learning about the founding fathers and in the life of scientists.

What other book might you compare Benjamin Franklin: An American Life to and why?

Washington: A Life. They are comprehensive biographies that portray their subjects as actual humans, with virtues and flaws, and make you feel close to them, their way of thinking, and how they became great historic icons.

How did the narrator detract from the book?

While his tone and articulation were very good, I cannot say the same about the frequent "mouth" sounds throughout the narration. You can hear him stopping to drink water, swallowing, and making other sounds that are distracting, annoying, and a little disgusting. I know that your mouth can become dry from narrating such a long book, but I have listened to the George Washington biography, Herman Wouk's Winds of War, and other equally long books, without these "sound effects".
I think the narrator was good, but the sound production team could have worked better at filtering the sounds.

110 of 118 people found this review helpful

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  • Jeremy
  • 2011-09-14

Great read. Some areas disjointed, but solid bio.

Isaacson does a great job defining and realizing the character of Benjamin Franklin. You know him. You know him to the point where the last few chapters become predictive. Not the writing. But the last few chapters of Franklin's life.

Perhaps most astonishing is the way sheer mass of Franklin's legacy. It's written on the parchment of America's story in so many ways defining culture, government, philosophy, arts, finance, and even the sense of a self-deprecating comedic undertones to American Life.

Runger's reading was spot on. Especially the "character" voices he would use to go in and out of quoted text.

27 of 29 people found this review helpful

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  • Fun boy
  • 2016-01-13

Good story; kinda hokey narration

While the folksy narrating did grow on me and I came to understand it's rationale after listening to more of the story of Franklin's persona as a folksy scientist philosopher, I found the narrating at times distracting. That being said, the importance of the full scope of Franklin's life and the fascinating course that it charted through the colonial to revolutionary period in the nascent United States and the seeds of change in Europe that he either sowed or witnessed, make his story one worth knowing. The story makes some excuses for his cold dismissal (and possible neglect) of his family and it is here, with those serious and grave topics that the folksy narration draws too stark a contrast between narration and content.

Overall, it's worth the time because this man's story is so integral to the story of the establishment of the American story. I hope another biographer will take Franklin to task (McCullough or Chernow)...

14 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • P. Adlfinger
  • 2012-06-04

Warring on the Performance

How did the narrator detract from the book?

The narrator must really love his peanut butter. If you are sensitive to disgusting mouth sounds, this book is not for you. The Audible-page sample audio is pretty clean and not so ??representative of the mind-numbing 24-plus hours. If you listen in the car or another noisy environment, you will be fine. Otherwise, be warned.??

64 of 72 people found this review helpful

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  • Mr. Micah Peterson
  • Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada
  • 2016-12-29

Great book, good enough reading, but poor sound editing

Loved the book! Walter Isaacson is thorough and balanced. Great history lesson as Benjamin Franklin was a big player in a the American Revolution.

The reader was good, most voices done well, but his Ben Franklin voice is annoying through the whole book. The sound editing is not good and you often hear the reader swallowing and other saliva noises. After 24 hours of these noises, you start to get annoyed.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • J. D. Gunter
  • Colorado
  • 2016-10-07

Poor editing

The reader was great but I heard him swallow about 100 times and smack his lips. Why wasn't that edited out? It was very distracting and effected my enjoyment of the otherwise good material.

17 of 19 people found this review helpful

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  • Adan Gonzales
  • 2014-04-07

Great Book! Annoying Narrator

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

I would recommend this book to anyone who has never heard another narrator before, or someone who is so interested in the life of Benjamin Franklin that they are willing to put up with the narrator's annoying "impersonations."

What was one of the most memorable moments of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life?

Walter Isaacson is on par with the greatest biographers of all time, of course that is just my humble opinion. The entire plot of the book is memorable. There are things that at points you wonder, why do I need to know this minute detail, but then it comes up a few minutes later and you realize why Mr. Isaacson inserted such a detail.

What didn’t you like about Nelson Runger’s performance?

Runger has a habit of trying too hard to sound like the person who he is portraying. For example, if he is narrating a letter by Mrs. Franklin, he will use a very shrill voice to try to imitate her, which is very annoying since he already has a very shrill voice himself. Then when he is narrating a letter by one of the Mathers or a proprietor or a member of parliament, he deepens his voice and begins to sound more like a cartoon character. By him doing this, it takes away from the book and the pleasure of listening to such a great story. If you have listened to a narration by Edward Hermann, then you will be disappointed by this narrator. Sorry to be blunt.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

When Benjamin Franklin was in the "Cockpit;" oh to be a fly on one of those walls and to have been able to witness his silent protest.

Any additional comments?

I believe Walter Isaacson to be one of the greatest biographers, but I think anyone who listens to this particular audiobook will agree that Mr. Runger is nowhere near the caliber of narrator for such a great book. If Mr. Isaacson had done anything less than a stupendous job with this book, I would have given up listening to Mr. Runger before Benjamin Franklin ran away from his brother's shop.

26 of 30 people found this review helpful

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  • DBruno1987
  • 2016-05-19

Couldn't Finish It

I'm not proud to admit this, but I just couldn't get through this audio book. There were so many details that to me needed to be trimmed off. I didn't feel like I was transported into this world, and Franklin didn't much come to life. I had no touble getting through the Steve Jobs biography by Issacson, but this one was just too dry and too hokey. I cringe a little bit just thinking about the "chore" of finishing this, of hearing the narrator speak in sing songy old timey voice. That voice makes me so much less interested in this period of American History and makes me dread listening to this...

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • J. Lee
  • California
  • 2012-07-03

An amazing life!

Ben Franklin left an indelible mark on our country. That much is taken for granted. Few, however, know just how much he did. This book should be required reading for diplomats in training and anybody else that wants to learn the art of the deal. Franklin was the first in so many categories that one cannot even begin to list them in a short review like this. Maybe though, one of his most important and enduring legacies would be religious tolerance, a new invention in the colonies at that time. I think that Mr. Isaacson did an impeccable job of bringing Franklin's legacy to life and I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful