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Illustration: Sculpted busts of geniuses (Priscilla Nielsen for NPR)

The Lives Of Geniuses: Five Brilliant Biographies

by Michael Schaub
Dec 20, 2011

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What separates a genius from somebody who's just really smart? Opinions vary, of course, but the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was probably onto something when he wrote: "Talent hits a target that no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Intelligent people aren't all that hard to come by — just turn on Jeopardy! or drop by your local spelling bee — but real geniuses are exceedingly rare, and any given generation is lucky just to have a handful of them in their midst.

It's difficult to know what makes geniuses tick, but five biographies this year do a particularly great job chronicling the lives and careers of some of the world's best-known prodigies. These books take us inside the minds of a founding father and the father of the iPod; the vexing artists who brought us Starry Night and Slaughterhouse-Five; and the couple whose scientific discoveries changed the world in awesome, and awful, ways. Though none of them is still living, it's safe to say that their genius will live forever.

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