Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I, Asimov

I, Asimov
© Isaac Asimov, 1994
Doubleday, New York

Ben Bova visited me [in the hospital] and, noticing the manuscript spread over my bed, asked what I was doing. I explained. "In this autobiography," I said, "I'm including every stupid thing I can remember having said or done."

"Oh?" he said, eyeing the pages. "No wonder it's so long."

I am currently working on the research for two history papers as well as a number of sociology papers, and so am in the university library quite a bit. I hole myself up in my favorite little corner, reading and taking notes, composing a narrative in my head. Every hour, though, I take a break from the accounts of war and wool-trade and read a little. I read Communism by Richard Pipes in this manner, and this week I read I, Asimov in the same manner -- or almost. I, Asimov is considerably more difficult for me to put down, and I went through 20+ "chapters" at a time before finishing it today. I had to get it out of the way -- I was already hooked, and trying to work while having already sampled it was distracting.

I, Asimov is as you might imagine an autobiography by Isaac Asimov. I have already read one such autobiography -- It's Been a Good Life, edited by his wife and composed of excerpts from this book, others, and letters. It's Been a Good Life was considerably shorter than this, and I wanted to read more about his life after I finished it a month or so so back. The book is not expressly organized chronologically: while the topics themselves are arranged into a loose chronological framework, Asimov often goes back and forth between various areas of his life. The book was written in 125 days, and he wrote the sections as they came to him -- hence the fluid nature. The sections number nearly two hundred, but they are not lengthy like chapters -- some are only a page or two long, while others are considerably longer.

Asimov was born in Russia, although his parents moved when he was scarcely three. He could not speak Russian, or read it, and did not consider himself a Russian by any stretch of the imagination. His father was more or less a secular Jew, as was his mother, and consequently he was not raised with religion -- although he did go to Hebrew school to learn the Torah and Hebrew after his father began working for a synagogue. At first he resented this, as he did not see the use, but realized when he was older that any knowledge is usable. To paraphrase him, "Having familiarized myself with Greek myths and the darker Norse myths, I realized right away that I was dealing with Hebrew myths." Asimov learned to read and write at an early age and took immediately to the public library. His father was in no position to censor his reading to "proper" literature, and so he read anything he had a mind to. His family ran a candy store with an accompanying magazine rack, and it was through this story that Asimov read pulp fiction magazines, which introduced him to their fan clubs and eventually the world of writing.

While he wanted to write for a living, he thought this was not possible and so went to college. His father wanted him to become a physician, but he detested the medical art and went into biochemistry instead. He worked for the army during World War 2 and was drafted at the war's end. After this, he finished his PhD and began teaching. He began writing nonfiction on the side, which gave him outside income. The writing eventually became so popular that when he was relieved of his lecturing duties at Boston University he was able to write full-time and make a substantial living at it.

It's a large book, but very readable and very enjoyable for an Asimov fan like myself. He wrote about so many topics in the book that it is difficult to do it justice. He wrote about his experiences with Star Trek conventions, for instance, and describes how he met and befriended various personalities like Lester del Ray and Carl Sagan. Asimov describes the worlds he lived in -- the world of authors, graduate students, New Yorkians, soldiers, intellectuals -- in considerable detail and always with that informal style of his that makes the book read like a direct conversation with the reader. Asimov is frank about his abilities and his shortcomings -- as well as those of others. I greatly reccommend the read. Here are two quotations I found likable enough to write down:

  1. "It always seems to me that it's not hard to be nice to people in small ways, and surely that must make them more willing to be nice in small ways in return."
  2. "There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don't come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity."

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