Walter Issacson: New book on Einstein praised

Historians in the News

I spent this weekend at the beach with (my family and) three books: I read Al Gore's The Assault on Reason (Penguin), Neil Jumonville and Kevin Mattson's edited essays, Liberalism for a New Century (University of California) and went for long beach walks with the audio, unabridged version of Walter Isaacson's Einstein, which was published by Simon & Schuster, here, but on audio by Edward Herrmann, here, a terrific actor who always reminds me of Franklin Roosevelt.

Walter's book is so good in every way it's almost criminal. What a thrill it was to walk along the ocean and, on successive days discover that after 47 years of, um, relative ignorance, someone could finally explain not only relativity theory but also quantum mechanics to me in a way that made sense. (I took a semester of physics for poets so maybe I understood it once before, but I don't think so.) I also got the thing with that fellow's cat. The thing about Walter is that he writes the way Bill Clinton talks. His intellectual and emotional empathy for his subject is boundless, but he does not play favorites. I found this bending-over-backwards stance to be a little annoying when I read his Kissinger biography, but to be fair to that, with the exception of the Allende chapter, he gave you all the evidence to hang the guy even if he wanted to let him off. With Einstein, Walter's empathy is tested by the pretty awful way he treated his first wife and his various delinquencies as a dad. But again, if you want to hang the guy, it's all there. No less important, the prose just bubbles along, making the most abtruse subjects imaginable coherent to people like me who don't know from science at all. And while the author does not shrink from value judgments, I noticed none that offended my own personal and political sensibilities, which, given my many differences with the former managing editor of Time, president of CNN, and present president of the Aspen Institute, is a remarkable achievement. You can't help loving Einstein nearly a much as Walter does by the time you're done. I don't usually find myself agreeing with America on the number one nonfiction book at the time, but in this case, I finished the book in awe of Walter's achievement. And the fact that he did it while having a day job (and a well-deserved reputation as world-champion party-goer), as well as being a dad, husband, etc., well, I gotta say it's annoying, but there it is.

By the way, Walter also makes a better case for Einstein's involvement with his Jewish identity and peoplehood than I've seen before, and is also good on his politics, and this new collection offers plenty of opportunity for follow-up. And The New York Review published this, but I've not read it yet.
Read entire article at Eric Alterman at his blog, Altercation (click on SOURCE for embedded links)

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