A Peek into the Incomparable Mind of Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite writers. I recently finished reading It’s Been a Good Life, a compendium of excerpts from his letters, speeches and unpublished writing, curated by his wife Janet Jeppson Asimov.

The book is worth reading in its entirety — it is full of insights, candid self-reflections, pithy statements of his life philosophy, and accounts of pivotal life events. I picked a few below that particularly resonated with me and if they click with you as well, please do read the book.

On the joy of reading (reflecting on his childhood growing up in Brooklyn):

To those who are not bookworms, it must be a curious thought that someone would read and read, letting life with all its glory pass by unnoticed, wasting the carefree days of youth, missing the wonderful interplay of muscle and sinew. There must seem something sad and even tragic about it, and one might wonder what impels a youngster to do it.

But … the interplay of thought and imagination is far superior to that of muscle and sinew. Let me tell you, if you don’t know it from your own experience, that reading a good book, losing yourself in the interest of words and thoughts, is for some people (me, for instance) an incredible intensity of happiness.

If I want to recall peace, serenity, pleasure, I think of myself on those lazy summer afternoons, with my chair tipped back against the wall outside the candy store, the book on my lap, and the pages softly turning. There may have been, at certain times in my life, higher pitches of ecstasy, vast moments of relief and triumph, but for quiet, peaceful happiness, there has never been anything to compare to it.

On the joy of learning:

To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to commit a form of suicide; in the long run, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life.

Knowledge is not only power, it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved.

Love that last line!

On the impact of learning something that changes how you see the world:

… [A friend’s astronomy article] works out calculations that are of only minimal interest to me; but what does stay is the idea of Earth and Moon as two islands in the empty volume of a single body circling the Sun. It’s just a way of looking at matters that never occurred to me but which fascinates me now that it has been put into my mind.

It adds to my picture of the universe; it gives me all the pleasure of new knowledge that a poem might give to one of literary bent or a sudden revelation might give to one of mystical bent.

On being a global citizen …

I refuse to consider myself to be anything more sharply defined than “human being,” and I feel that aside from overpopulation the most intractable problem we face in trying to avoid the destruction of civilization and humanity is the diabolical habit of people dividing themselves into tiny groups, with each group extolling itself and denouncing its neighbors.

… and dealing with fellow humans.

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointment. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable of enjoying the good things.

Beautifully said.

On learning from the writing of others:

The only education a writer gets is in reading other people’s writing. You should read not through your opinion of whether or not you like something, but to see how the writer does it, why it’s effective.

On how he found his way to writing humor:

The humor in all three of the early humorous stories written in the forties was quite infantile and, in quality, they stand very close to the bottom of the list of my stories.

The trouble was that I was trying to imitate the slapsticky humor I found in other science-fiction stories and I wasn’t good at that. It was not until I realized that my favorite humorist was P. G. Wodehouse and that the proper way for me to be humorous was to imitate him — use my full vocabulary and say silly things with a straight face — that I began to write successful humor.

It was a thrill to learn that one of my favorite writers — P. G. Wodehouse — was an inspiration for another!

If you ever wondered where the curse words in old Westerns came from.

In the days when I started writing, writers, whether for the printed or the visual media, found it impossible to use vulgar language or even some proper words. It was for this reason that cowboys were always saying,
“You gol-darned, dag-nabbed, ding-busted varmint,” when undoubtedly no cowboy ever said anything like that. We know what they really said but it was unprintable and unusable.

The chance event that led him to become a science writer.

… the Segals dropped in and Jack asked me what kind of work I was doing … they listened in apparent absorption, and, at the end, Jack said to me, “You’re a very good explainer. I wouldn’t have thought anyone could have made that clear to me.”

…. as a result of Jack’s remark, I began to think of myself as an explainer. I never forgot, and the desire to explain began to grow on me from that day … Thank you, Jack Segal, wherever you are.

It is amazing to think that a single comment from a friend ignited a spark that burned bright for a lifetime and brought joy to so many.

On the disadvantages of being a prolific writer (Asimov wrote over 500 books!):

It complicates the writer’s social and family life, for a prolific writer has to be self-absorbed. He must be. He has to be either writing or thinking about writing virtually all the time, and has no time for anything else …

I imagine it does weary a family to have a husband and father who never wants to travel, who never wants to go on an outing or to parties or to the theater, who never wants to do anything but sit in his room and write. I daresay that the failure of my first marriage was partly the result of this.

He started reading the New York Times obituary page in his early fifties and over the next decade, his thoughts turned increasingly poignant.

There may be some morbid satisfaction in being a last survivor, but is it so much better than death to be the last leaf on the tree, to find yourself alone in a strange and hostile world where no one remembers you as a boy, and where no one can share with you the memory of that long-gone world that glowed all about you when you were young?

I must confess that reading that last line — “where no one can share with you the memory of that long-gone world that glowed all about you when you were young” — brought me to the verge of tears. I don’t think I will look at an elderly person the same way again.

On his life’s mission.

I am absurdly gratified whenever someone tells me that the book has “reawakened a forgotten joy in learning” because that’s what I try to do; that is my mission; only how do I go about saying so without sounding priggish and mawkish?

… I want to give in so many ways, on so many levels, to so many recipients — love and joy and knowledge — and in so doing I find love and joy and knowledge, for in the most concrete of the three, knowledge, it is absolute truth that I have never written a book that didn’t teach me far more than it taught any reader.

Give he did, and in abundance. Thank you, Dr. Asimov, we are in your debt.

MIT Professor, AI/ML entrepreneur/advisor. Prev: Founder/CEO CQuotient, SVP Data Science Salesforce, Chief Scientist/VP Oracle Retail, McKinsey. MIT PhD.

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