Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

by Mike Lankford
Melville House

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Utterly odd and unique and stunningly beautiful—and not what they asked for at all. The monks hated it. Completely.”

In a time of enlightenment and brutal death, Leonardo da Vinci was truly brilliant. Artist, scientist, mathematician, inventor—he existed to solve problems great and small in the world, while envisioning a future that would not come to fruition until centuries after his death. He is a historical figure that cannot be completely known or spoken of enough. Perhaps the term “Renaissance man” was invented to describe him.

Anyone who has spent time with brilliant people knows three things: First, no matter how clever and successful we are, we are not brilliant. Second, the brilliant are not like us, instead given to bouts of introspection so deep that they seem disconnected from their very environment. Third, they are a mystery, so expansive that their depths cannot be plumbed by regular people. Brilliant people rarely give us what we ask for, but instead what we should have asked for. The natural result is to assume that they walk among the immortals. Leonardo da Vinci was one such man, and given his creative output, who could blame us for hoisting him above others?

In his latest biography, Lankford tackles the conundrum of a legendary man who died five hundred years ago. Employing historical records, as well as Leonardo’s creative works and notes, the author reconstructs the legend, breathing spirit into the person, his motivations, and the key moments of his life. He accomplishes this with charm, wit, and a deft hand at research, all the while warning us that no one could truly know da Vinci—not even in his time. The genius was constantly riddling problems, while stretching the boundaries of known technique and convention. Although his acclaim would eventually be wide, his circle of confidants was small, if he ever actually confided in anyone. Delving into Leonardo’s personality, one is left with the impression that he took each task very seriously, but appeared to harbor an inside joke never fully revealed to us. So how does one get inside da Vinci? Lankford’s approach is to imagine Leonardo by employing time, circumstance, and the know record.

An exemplary moment arrives during the creation of The Last Supper. It’s a masterpiece of perspective and art, employing untested technique, which frankly did not hold up well over time and was further insulted by near annihilation during World War II. Even the painting is now an imagined thing. Although it was last restored during the 19th century, it is better understood by its reproductions, than the crumbling original in a convent near Milan. But we have clues within a 16th century reproduction, and we know from the artist’s notes and materials that he was under pressure to perform against challenging conditions. The wall was damp and given to erosion, and Leonardo was no master of fresco, requiring him to think quickly rather than his preferred method of meditation and revision. He gambled with technique to counteract these issues, and so it’s easy to imagine the pressure placed on him by himself and others. Lankford realizes this event with requisite intrigue and light.

The honesty in which Lankford reimagines Leonardo da Vinci is refreshing. The author devotes space on the page to suppose alternative realities while drilling down toward the likeliest possibility. The truth is that da Vinci was still a man and his life wasn’t easy, especially during an age of short life expectancy and the oppressive demands of an economically unbalanced society. Leonardo was never wealthy, counted on the patronage of uninspired aristocracy, and skirted the various deaths of the time to live to an unusual sixty-seven years of age. Who knows how much of his vast brain power was spent just to survive? While no exact records of Leonardo’s struggles exist outside of notes in his own hand, there exists post facto reflections of contemporaries and a parade of admirers through the centuries. His legacy is one of an enduring artist, creator, and visionary, and clearly his passion for learning and understanding has transcended time. Lankford sets all of this in motion in this quirky and utterly enjoyable depiction of one of history’s greatest figures.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Note: Each year, the Eric Hoffer Book Award gives the da Vinci Eye to books with superior cover art.

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The Eric Hoffer Book Award: Righting the Wrongs

Years ago, I was at a dinner with publishing professionals, where I heard the story of a powerful editor, and chair of a national book award, who nominated her own author for this prestigious award. I’d already heard this story from another reliable industry source, but overall I wasn’t surprised. Years earlier, I’d worked in the space program and, during the Challenger disaster, was shocked to learn that internal corruption had contributed to the deaths of the astronauts. If you ever read Dickens, you realize that suspect dealings have been part of the human equation since the dawn of business.

As the story went, the nominated book was summarily ignored by the award committee. So what was this editor trying to accomplish? The mere nomination, especially word of it throughout the industry, multiplied sales of the book many times over. The nomination alone had created legitimacy for the book. Powerful.

My first book had just been published and was doing well—for a small press book. That meant regional acceptance in parts of the world, whenever the local media shined its favor or a I visited in person. Otherwise there seemed no legitimate outlets for book promotion and definitely no benefactors in the inner circles of national book awards. Small, academic, and self-published books were virtually barred from the public discourse. The Eric Hoffer Book Award did not yet exist.

A quick survey revealed that, outside of the Pushcart Prize, the landscape was dotted with cottage indie book awards that carried exorbitant entry fees and questionable results. It appeared that each tried to pick “the best” books that came their way, but they did little to get the word out after the winners were selected. In fact, few writers had ever heard of most of these awards.

As the editor of a literary magazine, as well as a healthy writer’s blog, I had access to talented writers and authors. On a whim, the Eric Hoffer Book Award, named after the great American philosopher and freethinker, was created. I had a small publicity machine going for my first novel and planned to “promote the hell out of” the winners. I sought impartial judges—editors, agents, and industry-specific experts. The entrance fee needed to be affordable, yet cover expenses. Finally, I planned to do the unthinkable—exclude the major presses. Without malice, I believed that the independent author needed to be sheltered within the award. Mostly I wanted the kind of award to which I’d send my own book for consideration. Ironically as its creator, I could not.

At the time, a wonderful tool was blooming. The Internet was the wild west of publicity and mostly free of corporate control. Once word of the Hoffer Award hit the blogs, chat rooms, and e-mail streams, three hundred books arrived from small, academic, and independent publishers, as well as something they called a “micro” press, which involved a working press (multiple authors, not self-published) that produced less than twenty-four books per year. About half the entries were, and continue to be, from self-published authors. These latter entries ran the gamut from finely produced books to sloppy offerings with horrific copyediting. One book was handmade with calligraphed pages and covers painted on the back of soapbox cardboard. (By the way, this book won an award.) Many of these books rivaled, in quality and content, anything Manhattan was currently offering. A secret world of books existed that wasn’t getting its due, and, in this void, the Hoffer Award took on a life of its own.

Since the start, Hoffer entrants have been evaluated in one of its all-encompassing categories. It even has a fiction and nonfiction legacy category for books older than two years old. From within each category, books are promoted for the grand prize: The Eric Hoffer Award for Books. Through the years, it has added the Montaigne Medal for the most thought-provoking book, the da Vinci Eye for the best cover art, and the First Horizon Award for first-time authors. The industry has changed, and the Hoffer has expanded to e-books, which is the frontier for indie authors. Each of these distinctions carries its own weight within the industry.

A key of the Hoffer is that it experiments with ways to promote the winning titles. In addition to its media campaign, its relationship with the US Review of Books, which posts the annual judging results, has been a terrific benefit for the winners, runners-up, honorable mentions, and award finalists. Each year, the award honorees return e-mails and letters about how their association with the Hoffer has raised the visibility of their titles.

A decade later, the Eric Hoffer Book Award accepts over one thousand books annually and has grown in leaps and bounds each year. It remains one of the least expensive and most well-known independent book awards in the world. Its small registration fee covers the $2,000 grand prize, the increasingly expensive rates for shipping books around the country, and a small honorarium for each judge who spends hours reading and evaluating the entries. They love a good read and get excited when they discover a book that they feel the industry has overlooked.

Thanks to that infamous editor in Manhattan, a fully independent book award has grown. In the years to come, let’s hope the Hoffer keeps elevating titles that deserve recognition.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

How the Eric Hoffer Book Award Helps Authors

In 2007, The US Review of Books began publishing the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award. While the US Review is blind to the actual judging process, recently the Hoffer Award opened a window in The Authority of Book Awards. Years earlier, its chairman talked about the popular award’s humble beginnings in The Eric Hoffer Award: Righting the Wrongs.

While The US Review of Books boasts 18,000 monthly subscribers, tens of thousands of additional readers visit its on-line publication to view the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award each spring. Let’s take a look at how the excitement and the Hoffer Award in general has enhanced the success of the authors and publishers who registered their books with one of the most popular international competitions for small, academic, and independent books.

“Educators look for credibility, professionalism, and quality when choosing a novel to use in their classrooms, and they’ve been known to balk at choosing self-published titles. But that bright gold Montaigne Award sticker tells the world that my book is a well-written, compelling story middle-grade readers will never forget. As a result, my sales to school systems have sky-rocketed, and my calendar is chock full of classroom visits. Entering my book in the Eric Hoffer Awards was one of the best marketing decisions I could have made.” – Holly MoulderA Time to Be Brave

“I no longer need to try to attract the attention of traditional publishers. Ever since I received this award my book has received a lot more attention. In addition, my book sales have increased greatly. Thank you very much for the big boost. My Eric Hoffer Award success has been very rewarding.” Anthony Aquan-Assee, Second Life, Second Chance

“Our Eric Hoffer Book Award success in numbers: 9,100 Sold; 18 Reviews, 6,487,523 Reach; 120 Interviews, 305,476,330 Reach; 306 Mentions/Quotes, 440,303,385 Reach; 714 Op-Eds or Articles, 2,783,659,959 Reach; 1,575 Placements, 3,696,556,397 Reach.” – The Independent Institute discussing John C. Goodman, Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis

“Being an Eric Hoffer Finalist has helped me get invited to do more readings, receive honoraria, also sell books.” Joan Seliger Sidney, Body of Diminishing Motion

“The Eric Hoffer Award has added visibility, validation and ultimately readership. An immeasurable measure of pride accompanies the award.” Karen Krett, The Dark Side of Hope

These success stories form the core reason why the Eric Award was created. The US Review of Books to be a sponsor of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.

Gaining Eric Hoffer Book Award Success

In 2007, The US Review of Books began publishing the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award. While the US Review is blind to the actual judging process, recently the Hoffer Award opened a window in The Authority of Book Awards. Years earlier, its chairman talked about the popular award’s humble beginnings in The Eric Hoffer Award: Righting the Wrongs.

While The US Review of Books boasts over 15,000 monthly subscribers, tens of thousands of additional readers visit its on-line publication to view the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award each spring. Let’s take a look at how the excitement and the Hoffer Award in general has enhanced the success of the authors and publishers who registered their books with one of the most popular international competitions for small, academic, and independent books.

“The Hoffer win confirmed for me that my book was what I’d hoped it would be.” Bill Mesce, A Cold and Distant Place

“I no longer need to try to attract the attention of traditional publishers. Ever since I received this award my book has received a lot more attention. In addition, my book sales have increased greatly. Thank you very much for the big boost. My Eric Hoffer Award success has been very rewarding.” Anthony Aquan-Assee, Second Life, Second Chance

“Our Eric Hoffer Book Award success in numbers: 9,100 Sold; 18 Reviews, 6,487,523 Reach; 120 Interviews, 305,476,330 Reach; 306 Mentions/Quotes, 440,303,385 Reach; 714 Op-Eds or Articles, 2,783,659,959 Reach; 1,575 Placements, 3,696,556,397 Reach.” – The Independent Institute discussing John C. Goodman, Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis

“Being an Eric Hoffer Finalist has helped me get invited to do more readings, receive honoraria, also sell books.” Joan Seliger Sidney, Body of Diminishing Motion

“The Eric Hoffer Award has added visibility, validation and ultimately readership. An immeasurable measure of pride accompanies the award.” Karen Krett, The Dark Side of Hope

These success stories form the core reason why the Eric Award was created. The US Review of Books to be a sponsor of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.

More Eric Hoffer Book Award Success Stories

In 2007, The US Review of Books began publishing the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award. While the US Review is blind to the actual judging process, recently the Hoffer Award opened a window in The Authority of Book Awards. Years earlier, its chairman talked about the popular award’s humble beginnings in The Eric Hoffer Award: Righting the Wrongs.

While The US Review of Books boasts over 15,000 monthly subscribers, tens of thousands of additional readers visit its on-line publication to view the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award each spring. Let’s take a look at how the excitement and the Hoffer Award in general has enhanced the success of the authors and publishers who registered their books with one of the most popular international competitions for small, academic, and independent books.

“The award brought recognition locally and nationally, increasing interest and distribution that continues even after ten years since publishing.” Carolyn Singer, The Seasoned Gardener

“For one thing, I’m a college professor, and doing so well in the Eric Hoffer Award earned me a bigger than usual raise. For another, it boosted book sales.” Andy Solomon, The Fourth Demand

“Winning an honorable mention in the self-help category boosted my book sales. It also helped with credibility in requesting book interviews and book signings. The reward is highly respected in the literary field.” Michele Sfakianos, RN, BSN, Ace You Life

“Winning this award kicked sales of Mr. Touchdown up significantly and gained the book recognition in both bookstore and school sales. Even now, 10 years after winning the award, my book still sells a few dozen copies a quarter, more in the first quarter when it is picked up for Black History Month. I have passed 2,000 total sales, with very little promotion and am moving toward 2,500.” Lyda Phillips, Mr. Touchdown

“Once I included [my Hoffer Award honor] on my links, sales increased by 25%. I’m Finalist as well on the Royal Palm Literary Award through the Florida Writers Association, but fewer readers are aware of this award. Obviously Eric Hoffer continues to make an impact, and I believe I’m getting some good miles from his legacy. Thank you!” Vanessa Russell, Four of a Kind

These success stories form the core reason why the Eric Award was created. The US Review of Books to be a sponsor of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.

Eric Hoffer Book Award Success Stories

In 2007, The US Review of Books began publishing the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award. While the US Review is blind to the actual judging process, recently the Hoffer Award opened a window in The Authority of Book Awards. Years earlier, its chairman talked about the popular award’s humble beginnings in The Eric Hoffer Award: Righting the Wrongs.

While The US Review of Books boasts over 15,000 monthly subscribers, tens of thousands of additional readers visit its on-line publication to view the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award each spring. Let’s take a look at how the excitement and the Hoffer Award in general has enhanced the success of the authors and publishers who registered their books with one of the most popular international competitions for small, academic, and independent books.

“Educators look for credibility, professionalism, and quality when choosing a novel to use in their classrooms, and they’ve been known to balk at choosing self-published titles. But that bright gold Montaigne Award sticker tells the world that my book is a well-written, compelling story middle-grade readers will never forget. As a result, my sales to school systems have sky-rocketed, and my calendar is chock full of classroom visits. Entering my book in the Eric Hoffer Awards was one of the best marketing decisions I could have made.” Holly Moulder, A Time to Be Brave

“In 2009, Barnes and Noble chose my debut historical novel to feature on its New Hardbacks shelves in stores nationwide. This was rare for an indie-published author at that time, and continues to be. It went on to win several more awards, and the Eric Hoffer Book Award committee’s belief in the book was instrumental in its success. Since receiving the Eric Hoffer recognition, I have published four more honored books… I’m very grateful to the Eric Hoffer Award committee for helping me to launch my publishing career.” Glen Craney, The Fire and the Light

“Recognition like the Hoffer award is a strong credibility builder when customers are searching through what has become a blizzard of information. The recognition was much appreciated.” Christine Kent, RN, Save Your Hips

“We’ve seen a 28% increase in sales since the Eric Hoffer Book Award announced the award. My publisher displays the Eric Hoffer Award gold seal on the third edition of my book. When I speak at writer’s seminars, many participants are familiar with the award and that helps sales.” Jamie Dodson, Flying Boats & Spies, A Nick Grant Adventure

“After my book’s Eric Hoffer Award I received more reviews on Amazon and GoodReads.” João Cerqueira, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro

These success stories form the core reason why the Eric Award was created. The US Review of Books to be a sponsor of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.

The Problem with Book Advertising

A true bestselling author (not a momentary flash on AMAZON Kindle, which creates “bestselling” authors we will never hear from again) has a large publisher spending piles of money to cover their hefty royalty advance. This repeated and wide-ranging advertising makes people aware of the book release and hopefully locks in sales. It’s an expensive luxury that happens for less than 1% of published authors. When you attend Book Expo, you’ll discover these authors peering down from forty-foot high banners hanging from the ceiling of New York’s Javtis Center. We all want to be the focus of such vanity. I want to be on a forty-foot banner, but for most authors, this type of expenditure will never be a reality.

That is fine. After all, the golden age of the author has ended. It died with authors like Styron, Vonnegut, and Vidal. The authors with forty-foot banners mark the end of this age, but unlike William Styron, the modern, banner-sized authors are not writers of literature. They are entertainers and commodity producers—a different sphere of the written word. And that is fine as well. Styron once said that he was surprised by the celebrity that came his way and not surprised by the general disappearance of it.

Also changing with the times is the way we communicate with each other. Most of us have grown up during the dawn of the Information Age and been bombarded with increased advertising during our lives. For Baby Boomers, the hot new devices were TVs and VCRs that skipped commercials. Millennials now do this subconsciously. Before advertising became super-saturated within our culture, a message was received after only three repetitions. Today, it takes thousands of occurrences if the message is received at all.

This makes effective advertising cost prohibitive for authors. However, annually we contribute a great deal in total to keep these old, tired, and useless modes of book advertising alive. We buy slots in print and Internet publications and the equivalence of e-mail spamming, and none of us see significant results. The total volume of it works against us.

The current generation is savvy about acquiring information, as well as how to separate the corporate appeals from what they desire. To some degree, most of us have adapted along those lines. For example, one premiere publishing trade magazine sells its cover to advertisers. This cover had always been a sign of “making it” in the industry, but I cannot tell you who or what was on the cover last week, much less in the last ten years. News radio stations prattle on about the next great mystery novel redux, but I can’t remember who or what they were talking about. A great article in a top writing association magazine had a large author advertisement on the opposing page, but I cannot recall the book or author. It might have been for the author who was the focus of the article, but I’ve obviously learned to filter out the noise, and so have you.

Some of us don’t want to give up on the big lie, especially new writers. They dream of fat book contracts, bestsellers, and forty-foot banners, but on publisher’s row in Manhattan, we have a better chance of getting hit by a taxi—a much better chance. The same is true for book advertising. Advertisers can provide circulation, visitor, and click data, but no one can provide a success rate (i.e. how it translates to actual sales), because it’s not sincerely traceable. So let’s line up a few realities about book promotion.

Print, radio, and television advertising is a bad bet for authors. Not only is it expensive and likely ignored, the target audience is a mere fraction of the people reached. In general, the reading public has always been a small portion of the entire population. Even if the advertising is done through a reader-specific outlet, we aren’t really paying attention after a handful of ads. Unless the author is a successful stockbroker, he or she will not have the resources to generate enough repetition to penetrate public awareness with advertising.

The author interview has always been an effective way to reach an audience. No matter the medium, readers come to a particular book through the author first. If the author is interesting or provides a compelling story or facts, then the reader will remember the author’s name and seek out the book.

Trusted secondary sources are valued by readers. Potential readers want to hear testimonies about a book from just about anyone but the author or publisher. Readers seek feedback from friends, commentary from known authors, the expertise of valued review publications, and the authority of reputable book awards. Each of these sources adds a layer of authenticity to the author and his/her book.

Word of mouth still works, only the methods of word of mouth have changed. A trusted book recommendation is king in the bookselling business. However, few people still stand on street corners or at cocktail parties and discuss the books they are reading. Social media is the new street corner of discussion, and here too, the personality of the author comes into play. The most compelling authors rarely mention their books. Like the author interview, people remember the author’s name and eventually seek out the book.

Let’s start employing more effective strategies through digital platforms. Leave the ads for soft drink and toothpaste companies. They have the cash, and everyone is interested in those items. An author’s audience is smaller and smarter, too. The goal is to draw an audience to the author and then create a feedback loop, which is the contemporary version of old fashion word of mouth. Within a feedback loop, readers will circulate book commentary that is both organically grown and culled from trusted voices of authority and expertise.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future. See his popular series on publishing: The Book Killers.