I started reading Isaac Asimov’s retrospective memoir, I. Asimov last night.
I’ve written here often enough about my ritual, each April, where I read Isaac Asimov’s 3 autobiography volumes. I always read I. Asimov first, even though that was written last, because that one is a retrospective of his whole life. In the epilogue, Janet Asimov writes of Isaac’s death, and I don’t want to end on a sad note. So once that book is finished, I turn to the first volume of his massive autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, and follow that up immediately with In Joy Still Felt, so that when I am all done (after nearly 1,000,000 words worth of reading!) Asimov is still alive and well in 1979.
I was a senior in college when the hardcover of I. Asimov first came out. Believe it or not, I hadn’t read a whole lot of Asimov at the time. My science fiction experience was still very narrow-focused on a few writers (like Piers Anthony) that I had discovered as a teenager. But I bought the first edition hardcover (it was on the bestseller lists, if I recall) and took it back to my apartment to start reading. Almost immediately, I fell in love with Asimov’s colloquial style. It was as if he was sitting in my living room, telling me the story, instead of my reading it off the page. I was also fascinated by his life story, not so much because anything exciting happened, but because in many ways, he was so normal, yet became a great science and science fiction writer–it was almost like reading an instruction manual on How To Do It.
People sometimes complain about Asimov’s ego, but it never bothered me. I always found it funny. And I couldn’t put the book down during that first reading. I recall sitting in an Urban Politics class (in which we discussed such fascinating topics as city budgeting and general funds), reading more chapters of I. Asimov and ignoring what the professor was saying. I’d known Asimov was a science fiction writer, but in reading I. Asimov, I learned he wrote a lot more. After I finished that book, I started to grow my Asimov collection, and read everything I could get my hands on that he wrote, fiction or nonfiction.
I learned, too, that he’d written an even longer autobiography, much more detailed, that was published in two volumes back in the late 1970s. Eventually, I sought out those volumes and when I saw how big they were, I balked. How interesting could 640,000 words about a writer’s life be? But sometime in 1995, I decided to give it a try. I’d just finished my second reading of I. Asimov and I opened up In Memory Yet Green. It was a spring day, I recall, and I was sitting in a Swenson’s restaurant on the corner of Ventura Blvd. and Laurel Canyon, drinking a chocolate shake when I started reading the book. And you know what: I love that book. I read In Joy Still Felt right after, feeling lucky that I didn’t have to wait the year between publication that folks in 1979 and 1980 had to do.
Almost every year since, the month of April has been dedicated to my re-read of those three books. You’d think after 18 times or so, you’d get bored with them. I have the all virtually memorized, but I never get bored reading them. Indeed, I come to look forward to the spring because it means my re-read is approaching.
I’ve tried to give some thought as to why I can do this year after year and not get bored. The best I can come up with is something I stated earlier. When I read those books, it’s as if Asimov is sitting in the room with me, telling me stories of his life, laughing, joking, explaining. I hear his Brooklyn accent in my head as clearly as if he were next to me.
The books have had a strange effect. Through them, I obviously feel like I’ve come to know Asimov much more as a friend as a opposed to a revered writer who I never had the chance to meet in life. But I also have come to feel like I know many other people mentioned in the books. Frederik Pohl is prominently featured in the first half. He and Isaac were close friends. But there are many others: John Campbell, Harlan Ellison, Hal Clement, Lester del Rey, the list goes on and on. I feel like I know these people, too, at least through Asimov’s eyes.
I always come away from the books with a surge of energy to write and be as prolific as Asimov was. Over the years, I’ve matured a bit in this respect. I stil have the surge of energy, but I realize there is just no way I can be another Isaac Asimov.
Isaac Asimov’s autobiographies have had more of an influence on my than any other books I’ve read, I think it’s safe to say. It was after that first reading of I. Asimov that I started reading Asimov’s science essay collections and his other science books. It was then that I started reading books like Asimov’s Guide to the Bible and Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. I’ve stated before that in the broadest sense, most of what I learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. In a similar respect, Asimov taught me how to be a professional writer. I wanted to be like he portrayed himself. I recognize that he probably exaggerated in some areas, but the writer he portrays in his books is the writer that I wanted to be. I’m much less prolific, and much slower in my career than Asimov was, but much of the success that I’ve had so far I attribute to what I’ve learned from those three autobiographies.
I was too busy in 2011 to spend my April reading the books. I was still figuring out how best to fit in my weekly reading for my Vacation in the Golden Age, and had other things going on. So I skipped the reading last year. I was so busy that I really didn’t notice, but that voice has been creeping back into my head lately, that yearning to read the books again, to get my annual fix. And so rather than waiting for April, I started reading I. Asimov last night.
If my count is correct, this is my 18th reading of these books, but there is one difference this time, not counting the fact that I am reading them in January instead of April. The version of I. Asimov that I started reading last night was the Kindle version1. And do you know what? It is no different than reading the paperback or hardcover edition of the book. One I’ve read the first page or so, the words disappear, the book disappears, the device disappears and it is just me and Isaac, sitting around talking about science fiction, writing and life.
- And if you count the Kindle version, I own three copies of the book, Kindle, Hardcover, and Paperback. I own one copy of In Memory Yet Green, a hardcover. I own three copies of In Joy Still Felt, a first edition hardcover, a bookclub edition, and a signed hardcover edition. ↩