Doubleday, 1994, 562 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-385-41701-2
Any discussion of Isaac Asimov, the writer, must inevitably dwell on how prolific he was. In roughly fifty years, he wrote more than 470 books (yes, more books than most people will ever read in their lifetime!), and that’s not counting the various articles, speeches and assorted miscellanea he also penned during his career.
Asimov died in 1992, but it took a few more years to publish everything he was working on at the time. One of those projects was an autobiography, I. Asimov, in which he more or less summed up his life. Incredibly enough, this wasn’t even a first autobiography for him: In 1979 and 1980, he wrote In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. While I. Asimov acknowledges these previous autobiographies, it’s also a stand-alone work. (As Asimov explains in the introduction, the first two volumes have long been out of print) Anyone interested in the writer’s life should pick up this work; it’s pretty much “the ultimate Asimov.”
Hefting in at more than 550 pages, this book is divided in 166 short thematic chapters arranged in rough chronological order; while he’ll occasionally break his narrative to describe his relationship with other persons or to give a general opinion about a given subject, most of the book proceeds from childhood to education to early adult life to late adult life to semi-retirement. Each chapter clearly announces the subject, and even though there’s no index (argh), the table of content should be sufficient for most casual reference use. A 1994 bibliography completes I. Asimov.
As far as autobiographies go, this one is quite satisfying. The scope of it is ideal, of course. There isn’t much to Asimov that’s left unexamined by the time we read Janet Asimov’s epilogue. The writing style is compulsively readable, with a good mix of humour and information, of dry self-depreciation and proper acknowledgement of his strengths. You can easily get through this tome in a few days.
Asimov is also surprisingly candid, maybe a bit more than some fans might have expected. He makes no excuses, for instance, of his rather libertine attitude towards affairs during his first marriage. He can be quite cutting regarding whom he considers idiots. The failure of his first marriage is described quickly, as is his disappointment in his son (who he describes as a “gentleman of leisure.” [P.176]) (At least Asimov didn’t live to see him implicated in a child-pr0n scandal in 1998. Oh, the things we learn while fact-checking on Google…)
But don’t assume that these few issues are emblematic of the rest of the book. When Asimov loves, he loves a lot. It’s impossible to close the book and remain un-moved by his pure love of writing. (See his notes on his divorce, P.336) His own pleasure in public speaking is also obvious, and even quite charming; he was good at it and took considerable pleasure in delivering the goods as needed, even without notes or time-pieces. His devotion to his daughter Robin is touching, and his love for his second wife Janet is the source of considerable emotion late in the book.
Isaac Asimov has not in good health for the last decade of his life, and the last fourth of I. Asimov reflects the tragic dignity in which he left. The whole book itself was written with the mindset that it would be Asimov’s final word on himself, and by the end, it’s hard to escape impending death. The last few pages are especially poignant, as we’re left to contemplate what such a first-rate mind could have done had it been allowed five, fifty, five hundred more years. Alas, Asimov is gone, and there won’t be anyone else like him. Ever.
While Asimov may take delight in presenting himself as the humble son of an immigrant shop-keeper and in assuring us that nothing spectacular ever happened in his life, he misses the point: Asimov himself is the highlight of I. Asimov, not his life history. For any fan of the author, casual or obsessive, this is the definitive book so far.