Books

Explaining Isaac to the layperson

IN MEMORY YET GREEN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ISAAC ASIMOV, 1920-1954 by Isaac Asimov

David Weinberger March 26 1979
Books

Explaining Isaac to the layperson

IN MEMORY YET GREEN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ISAAC ASIMOV, 1920-1954 by Isaac Asimov

David Weinberger March 26 1979

Explaining Isaac to the layperson

IN MEMORY YET GREEN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ISAAC ASIMOV, 1920-1954 by Isaac Asimov

(Doubleday, $19.95)

When someone has written 200 books (100 in the past 10 years alone), it is tempting to assume that he has written 200 variations on

one note or writes rather thoughtlessly. Yet among Isaac Asimov’s works are some of the classics of science fiction, as well as a long series of articles that explain science to the layperson without pandering. Then again, some works are awful (Murder at the ABA stands out in the memory); and as for his two-volume guide to the Bible, histories of France, Greece, Rome, England, annotated versions of Paradise Lost, Don Juan and Shakespeare, does anyone take them seriously?

This book is Asimov’s Guide to Himself. After 300,000 words (and this is only Volume I), one has the answer to the question: what does a prolific writer do when he gets writer’s block? He writes his autobiography. Or, more exactly, his chronology. To our misfortune, Asimov has a superb memory and an Alexandrian Library of diaries, enabling him to tell all. We learn his old phone number, what he and his father had for lunch the day he bought his first typewriter and the precise date he first

watched Sid Caesar on his own TV set. In footnotes he tells us what he decided to drop from the first draft. Why all these details, he muses? To aid his future biographers. But this book makes biographies of him both unnecessary and unappealing.

As with most of his writing, his autobiography is chatty and cutesy but otherwise devoid of noticeable style. This works to his advantage in the oft over-styled genre of science fiction. Here it results in a flatness made conspicuous by the book’s length and unrelieved by a life story that, he admits, is not very interesting: he grew up in Brooklyn, worked in the family store, felt the need to prove his intellectual powers by showing up his classmates— and succeeded.

Two quirks do provide an illusion of style. First, he uses words that lack the merit legitimately to exist: outindignation (a verb), ministir (a small commotion) and supercommon. Second, he speaks glowingly of himself and reminds us he is just being frank. Brash, often witty, Asimov tries too hard to be chummy after reminding us of his towering intellect.

He does not answer the question his output raises: how can he write as much as he does? We learn less about this than we would if he took 10 minutes to write an essay on the subject. He tells us that he read a lot as a child and remembers most of it, he no longer uses outlines, he types two drafts and to get an idea, he says, “I just think and think and think until I have something.” It’s like asking how Shakespeare wrote such great plays and answering, “With a quill.” Think and think and think again, Mr. Asimov. The rest of us should duck until the next 300,000 words about himself have come and gone. Pass the time by reading I, Robot.

David Weinberger