|The Daily Gazette|
Einstein biographer was drawn to Person of the Century|
Isaacson enjoys finding thinkers as ordinary people
Walter Isaacson first thought of writing a book on Albert Einstein back in 1995, shortly after being named managing editor at Time magazine.
“I knew that in a few years we were going to have to come up with a Time magazine Person of the Century,” said Isaacson, in a recent phone interview from his office in Washington, D.C. “I was reading books on Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill, Gandhi and Einstein, all great men, but I found myself being drawn to Einstein’s creativity, playfulness and irreverence.”
Einstein would indeed end up being named the Person of the Century a few years later by Time, and even though Isaacson was writing a book on Ben Franklin, which was published in 2003, he was also at the same time researching and writing his latest book on Einstein.
The new book “Einstein: His Life and Universe” (551 pages, $32, Simon and Schuster) has just been released and is receiving excellent reviews. He will read from the book on Monday at 8 p.m. at Page Hall at the University at Albany’s downtown campus as part of the New York State Writers Institute series.
“I consider myself very fortunate to have written the book when I did because it was only last year when over 3,000 of his most private letters and papers were released,” said Isaacson.
The new material provided a much more intimate look at who the real Albert Einstein was. They clearly reveal his strengths and his weaknesses.
“This book became a labor of love for me,” said Isaacson, “and after spending so much time reading his letters, interviewing people who knew him, and talking to some who had dinner with him, I really felt like I forged a relationship with him.”
Isaacson is pleased that the early reviews of the book have been so positive. “People seem to be getting what I was trying to do,” he said. “I’m trying to capture the joy of being creative, and Einstein, more than just about anyone else, had fun with his creativity.”
According to Isaacson, there are many smart people out there in the world, but many of those smart people aren’t creative. “Einstein had an ability to think differently, more imaginatively than other people,” said Isaacson. “Part of this came from his innate sense of being rebellious, which often got him into trouble as a student. This streak of rebelliousness helped him break the bonds of conventional thinking.”
It was interesting to Isaacson to learn that Einstein was a slow learner as a young child. “It took him longer than most children to learn the language and to talk,” he said, “but this helped him to learn to think in pictures, which was a big help to his creativity.”
What was so frustrating for Einstein as he got older was that he became the authority. “Einstein knew the source of his great creativity was his defiance of authority, but as an older man he was the authority. His thinking became more conventional.”
If Isaacson ever had the chance to meet Albert Einstein, he said he would have liked to sit and observe how his mind worked. “But I’d also like to ask him some questions about his faith. I found it interesting the more he studied the universe, the more he believed in God.”
Isaacson also would have loved to discuss politics with Einstein. “He had great passion for the big issues of his time, and I’d just love to talk ideas with him.”
For more than 30 years, Walter Isaacson has been talking ideas with some of the most influential thinkers of our age. He began writing local stories back in 1970 during the summer as an intern at the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1974, he worked for the Sunday Times in London, and in 1979 he was hired by Time magazine as a writer for the national section. In 1985, he was promoted to national editor at Time and in 1995 he was named the managing editor. He continued his meteoric rise as a news media executive by being named the CEO of CNN in 2001, and today he is the president and CEO of the Aspen LOVER OF BIOGRAPHY Institute.
“I love what I’m doing now,” said Isaacson. “The Aspen Institute is an organization based in Washington, where people explore ideas and analyze policy issues. It’s a think tank that focuses quite a bit on educational issues.”
He loves being a writer, but he admits that he has also loved having a day job through all these years. “Having my day job keeps me engaged in the world,” said Isaacson, “and while I was writing the Einstein book, this job gave me the opportunity to see how other creative people attempted to solve problems.”
After completing his fourth biography, he admits to loving this type of writing. “I’d love to be so talented as a writer that I could write a novel and create characters,” said Isaacson, “but I’m not able to do that. My daughter jokes around that I’m not a real writer because I write nonfiction, but I love biography. I love the chronological aspect of biographies. While Einstein was grappling with his great scientific theories, World War I was raging, his marriage had just fallen apart, and he was also trying to have a good relationship with his children. I love discovering how these famous people were just like all of us.”
What was at times difficult for Isaacson in writing this book was making the science accessible to people who are not scientists. “So many people approach science with a closed mind,” said Isaacson, “but I’ve tried to write about it in this book in a way that people can understand what Einstein did and how he did it.”
He is looking forward to his trip to the New York State Writers Institute. “I’ve always liked Albany,” he said, “and what I know best about Albany is what I’ve read in those fabulous books by William Kennedy. I only hope my book can bring alive Albert Einstein the way Kennedy has brought alive his many characters and his city of Albany.”
Isaacson broke into journalism during some of the glory days for the profession in the 1970s during the Watergate years. “When I worked at Time in the 1980s and the ’90s, those were good times financially to be in journalism,” he said. “These are not good times and there’s a great deal of pressure on papers and magazines to make money, but I believe print journalism will survive. There will always be a market for people who want to read their news printed on paper.