Benjamin Franklin, an American Life, by Walter Isaacson.
If I find a writer whose work I like, I read all of it.
And so it has been with Walter Isaacson. He chooses great subjects and tells great stories. He treats his subjects with appropriate reverence, but acknowledges their imperfections. With each of his books I found myself engrossed and was able to plow through quickly, in spite of their volume.
The Franklin biography was the first that I read. After having read the others, I’d have to say it’s my least favorite, but it’s still very good.
A few storylines that I thought were interesting: Franklin grew up very poor, but managed to retire from active work at 42. That was older than the average life expectancy of the era, but he kept himself busy in retirement with the projects, civic and social engagements for which we know him today.
Isaacson also depicts Franklin’s temperament differently than I had expected. Many movies and stories portray Franklin as a womanizer and a bit of a drunk. Isaacson describes him as a flirt and a character, but abstemious by the standards of the era, which I think makes sense. It’s hard to imagine someone doing a fraction of what Franklin did if he were regularly incapacitated.
Einstein, His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson.
Three things stood out to me in this book:
First, just how extraordinary Einstein’s transition was from the being the ultimate outsider to the ultimate insider. How a man that no one bothered to acknowledge became so revered that his name is now synonymous with the concept of genius. If you know anything about Einstein, you probably know that he wrote many of his most important papers, including the one on special relativity, while working as a patent clerk. But this book details just how much he struggled to obtain recognition in his youth. Even the patent clerk job was a huge coup for Einstein. When he first graduated from the Zurich Polytechnic, for years, he couldn’t find any job. He was completely invisible.
I was also very surprised to learn the story of his first child, “Lieserl,” who probably died in infancy, whom he never saw, and whom he never publicly acknowledged. As a man who cultivated a reputation for avuncular warmth, humanity, and generosity in his later years, his treatment of his first child seems a contradiction.
The last storyline, one that dominates the second half of the book, is Einstein’s stubborn refusal to accept quantum physics. In much the same way that Einstein’s theories on relativity created an upheaval in the dogma of Newtonian physics, so too did quantum physics create an upheaval in the dogma of many fundamental concepts of pre-quantum physics. And while Einstein developed his theories of special relativity by abandoning many concepts that were previously considered axiomatic, he was strangely dogmatic when he learned about the discoveries in the quantum revolution. And this stubborn refusal to accept these new discoveries meant that he produced few, if any, meaningful contributions to physics in the last 38 years of his life.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson. This is by far the best book on the history of the computer that I’ve read.
Given the role that computers and technology play in our lives, it’s shocking how little we’re taught about their history. know all about Metternich and Bismarck and Franz Ferdinand, but I had never heard the name Ada Lovelace until I read this book. And it’s a great story, one that should already be finding its way into our elementary-school curriculum, if it hasn’t already.