Book Review: I, Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was an amazingly prolific writer. Although he is probably best known for his science fiction novels and stories – the Foundation series, for instance – he wrote and edited over five hundred books on a wide range of topics. When I skimmed the Wikipedia article on him, I discovered that his books cover nine out of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System, the exception being philosophy and psychology. Besides his fiction, in which he specialized in science fiction and mysteries, he wrote books on general science, astronomy, geology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, etymology, history, humor, the Bible, and annotations on other classic works of literature.

In this memoir, Asimov makes it clear that his prolificacy is due to the fact that he loved to write. Nothing made him happier than to hole up in his apartment with his typewriter all day long. He disliked traveling, especially traveling by plane, and also disliked any interruptions of his work routine at all except occasional get-togethers with congenial friends for meals. Reading about Asimov’s attitude towards writing, in fact, clarified my own. I don’t need to be writing all day long as he did, and I love to travel, but writing is both a necessity and a pleasure to me, and I loved reading Asimov’s unashamed take on the subject.

The entire book is a celebration of sorts, not just of writing but of the people, events, and subjects of importance that made up Asimov’s life. He writes in a very simple and unaffected style, almost as if in a letter to a friend. His tone, even when he is relating tragic circumstances, is always upbeat. I got the impression that Asimov would have been a fun person to know. Sadly, he died in 1992, when I was living overseas, long before I started to have occasion to meet other writers from the world of science fiction and fantasy.

This is the third volume of memoir that Asimov wrote. The first two are composed in a chronological manner, one following the other. This third volume came out long afterwards, and rather than continue chronologically, Asimov decided to write a retrospective that would be organized by topics instead of sequence of time. There are 166 chapters in total, and each of them are about the size of a typical blog post. This makes them easy to read and easy to follow. I got the impression, as I made my way through this book, that had blogging been a thing back in Asimov’s day, he would have been a formidable blogger. As it was, he contributed regular columns and articles to a range of magazines, many of which were later compiled into collections.

This is an extremely entertaining book. Even when Asimov writes about seemingly mundane subjects, he does it with verve and enthusiasm and makes them extraordinary. That’s why he was so much in demand to put out volume after volume on so many different topics. To him, his writing work was also intensely pleasurable, and this feeling of enjoyment is passed on to the reader. As a result, this book, in which he has a chance to expostulate over and over on the act of writing itself, must surely be one of his greatest achievements.

Asimov finished I, Asimov just two years before he died. Since its publication was delayed, he never saw the final book. It’s a fitting close, though, to the career of a man who loved the act of writing even more than the accompanying fame and finances.

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