Einstein: His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson
(Simon & Schuster, $32)
Most people, even famous people, never become the subject of a biography. A few people, on the other hand, undergo biographical treatment again and again and again. One of those few is Albert Einstein (1879–1955), physicist, explainer of the universe, professor, nonconformist, philosopher, author, and battler for peace on earth. When a life is repeatedly subjected to biographical treatment, it is legitimate to query the biographer: Why? Often, the answers are unconvincing, amounting to something like, “Well, I, the biographer, am interested in this life. I don’t care how many others have gone before me, and that’s explanation enough.”
Walter Isaacson may be late to the Einstein-biographer party, but his justifications for a new version of an oft-told-about life are persuasive. For starters, documents from Einstein’s work and private life have recently become available. Second, Isaacson has labored mightily to make the science embedded in Einstein’s life accessible even to those unschooled in physics, and he has never become discouraged along that route. Third, Isaacson, a former managing editor of Time magazine, is a writer with a fluid style and whose narrative talents give Einstein an aura that’s missing in previous accounts of his life.
(The book’s editor, by the way, is Alice Mayhew of Simon & Schuster. Her name is nearly unknown outside the world of serious nonfiction authors and publishers, but her involvement is significant — she is almost surely the most legendary living editor of serious nonfiction. Her other authors have included Bob Woodward and Stephen Ambrose.)
As Isaacson recounts the growth and maturity of this genius, he fills the biography with psychological insights that spring naturally from his intense study of Einstein. Rather than seeming superficial and presumptuous, they seem to grow organically from the biographical material. As a result, Isaacson can share thoughts like this about Einstein: “As a young student he never did well with rote learning. And later, as a theorist, his success came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity. He could construct complex equations, but, more important, he knew that math was the language nature uses to describe her wonders.” Passages like that are reason enough for the retelling of Einstein’s tale. — Steve Weinberg
A new version of an old book you should have already read.
Ghostwriters never get any credit — if your name is far from the cover, the only thing you get is money. I had a ghostwriter for this article; he kept sliming my keyboard, however, so I had to zap him with my proton pack. But I think the dynamics of the writer-ghostwriter relationship have changed.
The great adventure writer Alexandre Dumas freely used ghostwriters. The ghostwriter would sketch a tale — say, The Count of Monte Cristo — and Dumas would set about turning that blueprint into a really long novel. Are these adventures any less adventurous because of their two-partiedness? No. Really, the only person who loses in the deal is the ghostwriter — whoever that might be.
This month, Modern Library publishes the long-forgotten Dumas adventure Georges ($25). This is not the tale of several fellows named George; the title is merely the French method of making effeminate that hardy, presidential appellation. On Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, the alternating of colonial control between the French and the British has clearly upset Georges, a man of mixed race. Georges has been abroad, but “[e]verything he had done in the last ten years, he had done with the sole aim of becoming such a superior man that he would be able to destroy the prejudice no colored man had yet dared oppose.” Georges has decided to lead a slave uprising. Of course, Georges falls in love — with Sara, a white woman, whose own racism is born of charming ignorance: “[B]ut he is from China — and who on earth speaks Chinese?” Sara’s fiancé is an old enemy of Georges’, and his personal creed is: “Colored men, all colored men, were born to respect him, and to obey.” Georges’ slave-trading brother is also back in town, and their dejected father is terrified: “Fate had reunited the family made up of a man who had spent his entire life suffering from prejudice against color, a man who made his living by exploiting it, and a man who was ready to die fighting it.” Georges is now in a grand struggle for the woman he loves and against the long-held grudge with her family and with the barbarism of colonial control. Luckily, he is handsome.
Though vastly shorter, Georges is as exciting as any swashbuckling Dumas tale. With rope swinging, jail escaping, shark attacking, dueling, slave revolting, battleshipping, oath making, and, of course, the ladies, it would be hard to pack more grand escapades into such a short novel. But most interesting is its place in Dumas’ fiction. Dumas himself was of mixed race, and Georges was his rare response (out of 300 books) to racial issues. The novel is newly translated from French by Tina A. Kover, newly edited with an eloquent afterword and notes by Werner Sollors, and it has a new foreword by Jamaica Kincaid. — J.D. Reid