Asimov Reads Again

Isaac Asimov would have been 97 today. In fact, this statement is somewhat speculative, since he moved to the U.S. at a young age without a birth certificate, and wasn’t able to locate such a record later in life. But based on what he learned about the timing and circumstances of his birth, he settled on January 2nd and celebrated that day as his birthday, and we’ll follow suit. (The obsessive among you may note that the first edition of his memoir I. Asimov [1992] states his birth date as “January 1, 1920” on the opening page, but this was corrected for the paperback edition, and the agreed-upon January 2nd date can be corroborated in many other places.)

Back in July, 2014 Michael Cummings wrote an interesting post titled “Isaac Asimov’s Reading List,” and I thought that to celebrate the Good Doctor’s posthumous birthday today it might be fun to expand on Michael’s solid primer and reference some additional books and authors that Asimov enjoyed, with source quotes. Besides using Asimov’s autobiographical writing, I’ll also quote some blurbs he provided for other people’s books.

Because Asimov edited or co-edited a huge array of science fiction anthologies, often providing general and specific story Introductions, and was, as a writer in his own right, of foundational importance to science fiction during the ’40s and ’50s, I’m not going to try and cover his favorite science fiction writers or stories: there are simply too many of them, and they’re not very surprising. The focus in what follows will be non-sf.

The title of this post, by the way, is a reference to Asimov’s humor book Asimov Laughs Again (1992). It seemed appropriate to invoke this title because it was one of the last major projects Asimov worked on, and in it he wrote: “I’m afraid that my life has just about run its course and I don’t really expect to live much longer.” That presentiment turned out, unfortunately, to be correct, but through his writing—and through our reading of other writers he loved—his presence remains.

Favorite Writers

In How To Enjoy Writing: A Book of Aid and Comfort (1987), co-authored with his wife Janet, Asimov offers up his trinity of best English-language writers:

“Good writers are invariably fascinating writers—the two must go together. In my opinion, the writers of English who most clearly use the correct word every time and who most artfully and deftly put together their sentences and paragraphs are Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and P. G. Wodehouse.”

The influence of the latter on his own writing didn’t pass unremarked. In the essay “Revisions” collected in Gold (1995), Asimov says he has an “idolatrous admiration” for Wodehouse’s writing. In his Introduction to Azazel (1988), Asimov writes, “if you occasionally detect the faint influence of P. G. Wodehouse, believe me, that’s not accidental.” Regarding his Black Widower stories, Asimov again acknowledges Wodehouse’s influence: “As for Henry, the all-important waiter, who is always in the background till the end, he is not based on a real person at all. He is entirely my invention, although I must admit that I see a similarity between him and P. G. Wodehouse’s immortal Jeeves.” (I. Asimov: A Memoir)

In terms of general literature, Asimov didn’t seem to have much use for modernism or anything that came after it. “I never discovered twentieth-century realism. I never read Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Joyce or Kafka,” he says about his reading habits when he was sixteen or so. “Even in poetry, I clung to meter and rhyme and never discovered post-Victorian poetry. Or if I saw some by accident, I found it repelled me.” He goes on: “I might as well admit that this was permanent. To this day [1979] I am a stranger to twentieth-century fiction and poetry and I have no doubt that it shows in my writing.” Accustomed to the thrills of the science fiction he had discovered in his youth, he “wanted excitement and action in my stories rather than introspection, soul-searching, and unpleasant people. So if I did reach for fiction in the library it was likely to be a historical novel by Rafael Sabatini or a Cape Cod novel by Joseph C. Lincoln. (Usually, when I discovered one book by a prolific author I found I liked I would methodically go through all the others by him I could find.)” (In Memory Yet Green)

A Lifelong Re-reader

Jo Walton once observed that “there are two kinds of readers in the world … those who re-read and those who don’t.” Asimov was definitely of the first variety. How to Enjoy Writing contains some home library suggestions, including a section that begins thus: “We also have a list of BELOVED BOOKS, REREAD FREQUENTLY, for comfort, entertainment, and exposure to good writing.” Dickens, Twain and Wodehouse again make an appearance here. Some further detail on Dickens can be gleaned from Asimov’s final memoir: “I have read Pickwick Papers twenty-six times by actual count and Nicholas Nickleby some ten times.” (I. Asimov: A Memoir)

Agatha Christie is also mentioned in the context of re-reading, “for unadorned style and master story-telling.” In I. Asimov Asimov describes Christie’s Hercule Poirot as his “ideal detective,” and in his Introduction to The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov (1986), he says, “… as it happens, I have now read every mystery novel or short story she [Agatha Christie] has ever written, without exception, many of them three or four times.” There’s no reason to think he didn’t continue re-reading them between 1986 and 1992.

In addition, in How to Enjoy Writing we’re told that Asimov has read Cervantes’ Don Quixote “in many translations.” In Asimov Laughs Again, Asimov says this about Cervantes’ novel: “the first modern novel, the funniest, and the best. I have read it five times and laughed uproariously each time.”

We’re also told that Asimov read various translations of Homer. Here’s more detail on Asimov’s infatuation with The Iliad: “By the purest of circumstances, I found books dealing with the Greek myths. I mispronounced all the Greek names and much of it was a mystery to me, but I found myself fascinated. In fact, when I was a few years older, I read the Iliad over and over and over, taking it out of the library every chance I could, and starting all over again with the first verse as soon as I had completed the last. The volume I read happened to be a translation by William Cullen Bryant, which (looking back on it) I think was a poor one. Nevertheless, I knew the Iliad word by word. You could recite any verse at random and I could tell you where it would be found. I also read the Odyssey, but with lesser pleasure, for it wasn’t as bloody.” (I. Asimov: A Memoir)

J. R. R. Tolkien was another author that engrossed Asimov: he read The Lord of the Rings five times, and in a footnote in In Joy Still Felt mentions that he “liked the books better each time.” His opinion of The Hobbit wasn’t as high: in his essay “Concerning Tolkien,” available in Magic (1996), he describes it as “not, in my opinion, entirely successful.” Asimov would pay literary tribute to Tolkien with his Black Widowers mystery story “Nothing Like Murder” (F & SF, October 1974).

In Memory Yet Green provides further insight into Asimov’s early reading, and the fact that he was a re-reader from the start: “I read E. Nesbit’s books [they are also recommended in How to Enjoy Writing] and Howard Pyle’s and George MacDonald’s. I even read Eugene Sue, which carries the Romantic Era to the extreme edge of endurability and had me constantly in tears. But then I was crying all the time in those days. I wept over Beth in Little Women, over Raoul, Athos, and Porthos in The Man in the Iron Mask, over Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, and eventually learned, in my frequent rereadings, which chapters to skip.”

It’s clear that books for which Asimov wrote lengthy annotations—for example, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible–must have been among his favorites, too. Just to pick one, I found this comment on the Bible amusing: “As I grew older, I read the Bible several times—the Old Testament, that is. Eventually, and with a certain circumspection and hesitation, I read the New Testament also.” (I. Asimov: A Memoir)

Nonfiction

Described as “a natural wonder and a national resource” for the lucidity and accessibility of his nonfiction, it’s easy to understand that Asimov would have advocated for popular nonfiction books by other writers, with an emphasis on science and math. No doubt over the course of his lifetime he recommended many such titles. Here’s a scattering of such from my own shelves, in no particular order. The comments derive from blurbs, unless otherwise specified:

Ben Bova’s The High Road (1981): “Ben Bova, in The High Road, makes my heart sing… This book should be required reading for everyone.”

Carl B. Boyer and Uta C. Merzbach’s A History of Mathematics (1968): “When we read a book like A History of Mathematics, we get the picture of a mounting structure, ever taller and broader and more beautiful and magnificent—and with a foundation, moreover, that is as untainted and as functional now as it was when Thales worked out the first geometrical theorems nearly 26 centuries ago.”

Eric Temple Bell’s Men of Mathematics (1937): “…there is no question but that his major work is “Men of Mathematics,” a classic series of short biographies of great mathematicians. It is unlikely ever to be surpassed in its field and if you want true pathos read his biography of Evariste Galois.” (This is not from a blurb, but rather a story introduction in Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1: 1939 [1979]).

Carl Sagan’s The Dragon of Eden (1977): “Carl Sagan has the Midas touch. Any subject he deals with turns to gold, and so it is in The Dragons of Eden. Never have I read anything on the subject of human intelligence as fascinating and as charming.”

John Gribbin’s In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat (1984): “A gripping account of the history of quantum mechanics and a clear description of its significance–and weirdness. Absolutely fascinating.”

John L. Casti’s Paradigms Lost (1989): “A deep, careful and pleasant consideration of what science is and how it is done. It would make anyone want to be a scientist.”

Martin Gardner’s The Ambidextrous Universe (1964): “I had read the book, and loved it, and had, indeed, modeled the development of my own book The Neutrino as closely after Gardner as I could.” (Also not a blurb; from In Joy Still Felt).

Paul Davies’ Other Worlds (1980): “Dr. Davies describes the deepest aspects of quantum theory in a way that is at once luminously clear and tremendously exciting. No one can read it without feeling the thrill of probing the universe to its very core.”

Robert Silverberg’s nonfiction: “He has written first-rate nonfiction books, and I remember reading, with enormous pleasure, his books on such subjects as the Mound Builders of pre-Columbian America and on Prester John.” (From I. Asimov: A Memoir)

Mysteries

Asimov enjoyed mysteries, particularly the cerebral, “armchair” kind. In time this would become one of his favorite genres: “My reading reached a peak in its aimless variety in my late teens. Later on, I began more and more to read for school or for my work, and eventually my reading for amusement became restricted to murder mysteries and an occasional history—and even that could be regarded as a professional interest.” (In Memory Yet Green)

We’ve already looked at his fondness for the works of Agatha Christie (though he wasn’t oblivious to her deficiencies, including the unpleasant attitudes her characters often demonstrated towards foreigners or Jews). It’s sometimes said that Christmas is the perfect time for mysteries, and indeed on December 25th, 1945, Asimov demonstrated that principle in action: “Christmas itself was quiet and peaceful and I spent it serenely reading murder mysteries.” (In Memory Yet Green)

Asimov met writer Ben Benson in 1955 and says, “I took to reading his books after I had met him and I enjoyed them.” These novels were “murder mysteries–police procedurals, to be exact–involving the Massachussetts State Police.” (In Joy Still Felt)

In I. Asimov he devotes a short section to “Mystery Novels” and relates his pleasure at reading “the novels of Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, and any others who wrote in literate fashion without undue stress on either sex or violence. When I was young I was particularly fond of John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, but in later years when I reread him I found that his books seemed overemotional and even unnatural.” This verdict of Carr is less favorable than an earlier one: in the Introduction to Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982), co-edited with Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, Asimov remarked: “One of Agatha Christie’s closest rivals for my undying love is John Dickson Carr, and, indeed, impossible-crime novels were his specialty. (What a pity we didn’t have room in the book for one of his novels!)” Maybe he hadn’t re-read Carr in 1982 when he wrote this, which would place his re-evaluation sometime between ’82 and ’92.

Incidentally, in the I. Asimov quote, Asimov refers to three of the four “Queens of Crime” (Sayers, Marsh and Christie) of the Golden Age of detective fiction, but doesn’t mention the fourth, Margery Allingham. She is mentioned, however, along with Nicholas Blake, in a later chapter of I. Asimov titled “Short Mysteries.”

 And A Few Surprises

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, anyone? In pages 727-728 of In Joy Still Felt Asimov describes how on December 24th 1975, while he and Janet were visiting friends, he started reading Gone With the Wind, “certain… that it was a foolish book,” but he immediately became hooked. Indeed, he waited until his wife fell asleep, got out of bed and stayed up reading all night (!) and much of the next day: “It took me fifteen hours of nearly continuous reading to finish the book, and when I was done I was angry. I wanted more!”

Asimov sometimes references obscure books he remembers for very specific reasons, such as this one: “I … read a justly forgotten book, Ten Thousand a-Year by Samuel Warren, which had an excellent villain by the name of Oily Gammon. I think that was the first time I realized that a villain, not a “hero,” might be the true protagonist of a book.” (I. Asimov) For those who’d like more information about the characters in Warren’s novel, many of which are said to correlate with real-life people, check out this list, in which Oily Gammon is described as a “solicitor and chief schemer, in love with Kate Aubrey.”

As a teen Asimov’s reading tastes could be idiosyncratic: “I was attracted to almost anything I could find in the humor section, but nothing satisfied me as much as the essays of Robert Benchley and the verses of Ogden Nash.” (In Memory Yet Green)

As Asimov relocated from one place to another throughout his life, his reading habits would sometimes be affected in unpredictable ways. I’ll limit myself to one such recounting. On July 22, 1949, Asimov and his wife moved into an apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, which Asimov describes as a “converted attic.” When the summer heat struck, indoor temperatures became unbearable–and there was no shower. The solution? “I found that a warm bath in the morning, or a cool bath in the evening, was wonderfully relaxing, and I enjoyed reading while soaking. The problem then became one of not soaking the book if I dozed off, or of dipping my nostrils below the water level and waking up strangling.” (In Memory Yet Green)

 

Perhaps the best way to close out this piece is by giving Asimov the last word. As is evident from his voluminous writing, and as I hope this modest survey has reinforced, Asimov loved to read for fun, for the sheer delight of storytelling. But he also believed that reading was of critical importance to education. The following is from a letter dated September 10th 1965, reprinted in Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters (1995):

“The library and bookstore are highly personal teachers with infinite patience and infinite learning.

“… school ends eventually. The steak and potatoes bow out. But dessert goes on forever and indeed becomes more important to the lifelong student than ever the main course was. Without steady renewal, school learning fades out and the college graduate returns to the natural state of illiteracy. The habit of broad, outside reading keeps him intellectually alive, culturally sharp.” (p. 231)

Alvaro is responsible for Traveler of Worlds: Conversations With Robert Silverberg. Alvaro writes fiction, of the non-tingler variety, and non-fiction, of the technicolor kind.

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