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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Narrated by: Nelson Runger
Length: 24 hrs and 40 mins
4.6 out of 5 stars (100 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

Critic Reviews

"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 listeners say about Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

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    4 out of 5 stars

Great insight to an ingenius human

It is a very thorough account of Franklins life and contributions to the world. I was looking for an overview of his influence through invention and politics. This production covers those points in detail. It is amazing how many letters were recovered from events that took place over 300 years ago that were used as content.

There was too much time spent on his personal relationships for my liking, but I guess that is detail others may be seeking.

I now understand more about Ben Franklin and why many people admire his accomplishments.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Rev
  • 28-09-2019

My kind of American hero

Fantastic Biography that gives a balanced approach to Franklin's life. my only complaint is some swallowing noises by the reader that get a bit annoying when using headphones.

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Excellent detailed description of Franklin's life

This was a great book. Isaacson is an amazing biographer. I because suite interested in American history during listening to this. The only downside is the narrator. Terrible voice chosen for reading narrating a 26 hour aduibook. Just felt the accent and the way he spoke was quite annoying to me. Would definitely recommend if you're interested in learning about an incredibly important individual who contributed greatly to humanity.

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Rather verbose

Published in 2003 this biography gilds the lily about Franklin. I am definitely a fan of Franklin, although not the writing style of Isaacson. Like a lot of American writers he could use one word where he uses two. He talks about the American Dream, but this is a rather old fashioned concept, especially in the time of Trump. I completed the book, but it was hard work. Too much is made of the US, especially when one considers the Founding Fathers dream is collapsing under its own lost vision. Slavery has been replaced by the huge prison population, murders and the lack of a social security safety network; I suspect Franklin would agree if he was alive today.

1 person found this helpful

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Fascinating.

There is so much to enjoy about this amazing, detailed and brilliant book about the life of this complex character. It’s my first read of Walter Isaacson and it has left a great impression as sparkles with wit, irony and understanding which has given me a greater sense of America as a whole as well as the values which have shaped this powerful country. Highly recommended to anyone who likes biographical works of substance.

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Interesting & practical - like Franklin.

Similar to Franklin's autobiography, this is inspiring and useful as a guide for me making my way in this world. However, it is much more expansive and provides a much broader context of his life, and the impact he had on America.

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Another great book by Walter

Another great book by Walter, I enjoyed learning about the life of Benjamin Franklin and how he evolved to be the man he is

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Benjamin Franklin

Fascinating. Enlightening. Compelling. Well worth the time. He invented bi-focal glasses - who would have thunk it!

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  • Brad Barker
  • 08-06-2013

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.

89 people found this helpful

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  • Cathi
  • 20-07-2013

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.

126 people found this helpful

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  • Jeremy
  • 14-09-2011

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.

31 people found this helpful

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  • Fun boy
  • 13-01-2016

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)...

18 people found this helpful

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  • Mr. Micah Peterson
  • 29-12-2016

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.

17 people found this helpful

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  • P. Adlfinger
  • 04-06-2012

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.??

73 people found this helpful

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  • JD
  • 07-10-2016

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.

24 people found this helpful

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  • Adan Gonzales
  • 07-04-2014

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.

30 people found this helpful

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  • J.D
  • 07-01-2018

Suprisingly disappointing

I have read Isaacson's books and like them all; I love reading the biographies of early Americans, but this one just had something missing. Frankline is portrayed as too perfect; the narrator was too chipper; I didn't finish the book although I listened to most of it.

4 people found this helpful

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  • C David Evans II
  • 10-12-2016

Reader

I returned the book because the reader slurped swallowed in competition with the narrative. Content was great.

8 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Maddy
  • 26-03-2013

Highly recommended

This was recommended by a friend who read the book, and I was not disappointed by the audio version. I knew next to nothing about Franklin and little about the American process of independence and I found this biography really interesting about both the man and his time. It was a compelling listen and fascinating. Now I'd like to find a biography of his wife, who must have been an extraordinary woman in her own right! Highly recommended.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Kirstine
  • 29-12-2013

An inspiring story of a polymath

I knew that Franklin was important in the formulation of the American Constitution and that he played a part in the understanding of electricity, but had not realized how impressive were his other scientific investigations nor how influential he was in international negotiations over independence from Britain. His life from humble beginnings to world fame is an inspiring story of self-education and hard work coupled with an admirable tolerance to all religious creeds and a playful sense of humour. The book is an engaging listen as his far from perfect personal life and extraordinary public one are interwoven with the domestic concerns and important moments in history.
The reader has just the right amount of folksy charm to narrate this fascinating biography.

13 people found this helpful

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  • NH Stevens
  • 11-08-2019

A perfect biography, perfectly read.

My life was almost completely on hold as I was instantly pulled into the beautifully read and fascinating life of the man who could truly be called “the first American”.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 16-08-2018

A Highly Recommend Read

This was my first interaction with a book about Benjamin Franklin that I found captured the great man's life and presented it in such a way that captures even the most casual readers interest in American history and of scientific research and his quick with made it even more enjoyable. I would and have recommended this book to numerous people who don't know where to start in reading about him. Even though his own biography is quite the read I find this book quite engaging and evenly spaced.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Teval Stephens
  • 20-08-2019

Long story

Interesting and informative, insightful and educational although very very long. It's like a 90 minute yoga class, you know it good for you but you cannot wait for it to finish

1 person found this helpful

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  • JCM
  • 21-07-2019

Outstanding Book about an Outstanding Character

Most know about the caricature Ben Franklin but this well-researched biography goes much, much deeper; sometimes portraying Franklin in less than glowing light. The performance by Nelson Runger is fantastic; well cadenced and good character voices. Even if you are not 'into' history this is worth one of your Audible credits. Onto John Adams!

1 person found this helpful

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  • John-Paul M.
  • 11-08-2020

A must read!

A fantastic account of an extraordinary life - learnings and insights galore. Biographies such as this one should be compulsory reading in school. Highly recommended.

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  • Dr. Edwards
  • 17-07-2020

Great Biography -

Subtle - nuanced and also well researched. This franklin biography does a good job of clearly bringing together some of the personality traits of Ben and separating the myth from the reality regarding him.

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  • B. Lawrenson
  • 18-01-2020

Outstanding Character

I enjoyed the book immensely but I listened to it between another book as it was a long listen.The audible narration was superb.

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  • P O DWYER
  • 03-11-2019

A magnificent and well researched biography

If you liked Steve Jobs biography (same author) you will like this one as well. Well researched biography of America's first and best Polymath relying on previous studies and original correspondence (good that Franklin was a prolific writer throughout his life). Traces the origins of Franklin family in England before he was born right through his death. At times it feels like the modern world (and not the 1700's) with varying forces and interests at work in negotiations between countries and underlying personal tensions.Sparingly uses and quotes other sources and only to make a point. Well narrated and good use of voice change especially capturing what Franklin would sound like.