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Author gets to know heroes in 'The Virtuoso'

Ken Carbone

October 15, 1999
Web posted at: 3:23 p.m. EST (1923 GMT)

By Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

In this story:

Browse through some photos from 'The Virtuoso'

'One of the magical things ...'


(CNN) -- Don't take Ken Carbone the wrong way. He's just as big a sports and movie fan as the rest of us. But he wants this entertainment-obsessed society to know that there are still other respectable professions out there.

"There are other things you can do," says Carbone, who has written a book illustrating his point. "The Virtuoso: Face to Face with 40 Extraordinary Talents" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $30) is a monument to those who are the best at what they do.

Sure, it focuses on big names in the world of entertainment -- Muhammad Ali, Pelé, Robin Williams, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Nadia Comanici. But it also features lesser-known folks like aeronautics engineer Paul MacCready, canoe-maker Henri Vaillancourt, storyteller Jackie Torrence, sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay and computer scientist Jaron Lanier.

"There are other things you can do, and these people have taken very noble crafts and done them at an extremely high level," says Carbone. "I feel the book is a little bit of a primer to anyone that wants to look at life a little more broadly. There are a lot of things you can do in life."

"I love all of these people, and I feel very passionate about what they have brought to me."
-- Ken Carbone, 'The Virtuoso'

Carbone, 48, is a designer by trade, co-founder of the New York marketing and design agency Carbone Smolan Associates. He says the idea for "The Virtuoso" came innocently enough, while he was reading an article previewing the 1996 Summer Olympics.

The article featured a picture of gymnast Comanici performing a "V" seat maneuver at the 1976 Montreal Summer Games, in which she ended up scoring the first 10 in Olympic history. When Carbone saw the photo, he says one word came to mind: virtuoso.

"I looked at it and said, 'How is it possible that some people can do these kinds of things?'" Carbone recalls. "This idea of virtuosity came to mind and I decided to pursue that much more deeply."

Browse through some photos from "The Virtuoso"

Building a list

Carbone started with personal heroes, and let the research take him into fields he wasn't familiar with.

He says, "I thought it would be interesting to explore the book on three levels: those individuals who are very well known worldwide, a second tier who had some kind of public notoriety, then the third level. I felt it would be interesting to seek out noble crafts that had a heritage, to find who were some of the top practitioners in those crafts."

A guide: Ali, boxing's "Greatest," is first-tier; Julie Taymor, the Broadway theatrical director and bunraku puppetry artist behind productions like 1997's "The Lion King," is on Carbone's second tier; Stuart Allan, a cartographer who has drawn what the Wall Street Journal calls "the world's most beautiful maps," is third tier.

Carbone made sure his list was cross-cultural, included men and women, young and old.

When he had his list of heroes to feature, he didn't begin by calling their publicists. Instead he asked friends and colleagues if they had any connections he might be able to use. It worked.

"This book really proved that old principle of six degrees of separation," says Carbone.

'One of the magical things ...'

The only resistance Carbone met was from the big-name celebs, but not for reasons you might assume. They hesitated, Carbone says, because they didn't want to be included in another haughty celebrity book.

"One of the magical things that happened, the marquee people agreed to participate solely on the merit of this eclectic list," says Carbone.

The writing of the book is one of those projects that can make non-authors feel a twinge of envy, as when they read about an author who toured a European country or escaped to the wilds. In Carbone's case, he met with each hero, interviewing and getting to know him or her. In the book, each "virtuoso" is featured in photography by Howard Schatz with text describing what makes that person tick.

"They all have these kind of old-fashioned virtues -- extremely determined, very courageous, patient, disciplined," says Carbone.

But they also have other unique traits.

Carbone says, "Three things they all shared. (First,) they have this scary sense of authenticity. There is absolutely nothing that separates the person from what they do. They are the real thing. There is no spin here.

"The second thing: There is a respectable level of will, where nothing stands in their way. They're never satisfied. Here, you're talking about people that do it better than anyone in the world, but it's always about this next thing and how they're going to do it better.

"Third, they had this sense of generosity. They all felt that they were given these gifts to share with others."

Now Carbone is sharing his gift with the world.

"I love all of these people," Carbone says, "and I feel very passionate about what they have brought to me."

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