I.Asimov: A Memoir, page 1
I.Asimov: A Memoir
Beginning to Write
Cyril M. Kornbluth
John Wood Campbell, Jr.
Robert Anson Heinlein
Lyon Sprague de Camp
Clifford Donald Simak
Lester del Rey
As World War II Begins
Master of Arts
Marriage and Problems
Life at War's End
Ph.D. and Public Speaking
The Big Three
Arthur Charles Clarke
New Job at Last
Boston University School of Medicine
Off the Cuff
Horace Leonard Gold
Literary Sex and Censorship
Science Fiction Conventions
Over My Head
Farewell to Science Fiction
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Lawrence P. Ashmead
Guide to Science
Boston University Collection
My Own Hugos
Walker & Company
Judy-Lynn del Rey
Life After Death
Guide to Shakespeare
Star Trek Conventions
Trap Door Spiders
The Dutch Treat Club
The Baker Street Irregulars
The Gilbert & Sullivan Society
Mohonk Mountain House
Martin Harry Greenberg
Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine
Simon & Schuster
Out of the Past
New Robot Novels
Fantastic Voyage II
More About Doubleday
Back to Nonfiction
Threescore Years and Ten
Epilogue, by Janet Asimov
In 1977, I wrote my autobiography. Since I was dealing with my favorite subject, I wrote at length and I ended with 640,000 words. Since Doubleday is always overwhelmingly kind to me, they published it all—but in two volumes. The first was In Memory Yet Green (1979), the second In Joy Still Felt (1980). Together, they described the first fifty-seven years of my life in considerable detail.
It had been a quiet life and there was no great excitement in it, so even though I made up for that by what I considered a charming literary style (I never bother with false modesty, as you will quickly discover), the publication was not a world-shaking event. However, some thousands of people found pleasure in reading it, and I am periodically asked if I will continue the tale.
My answer always is: “I have to live it first.”
It was my notion that I ought to wait till the symbolic year of 2000 (always so important to science fiction writers and futurists) and write it then. However, I will be eighty years old in 2000 and it may just be possible that I may not make it till then.
When, just before my seventieth birthday, I was stricken with a rather serious illness, my dear wife, Janet, said to me severely, “Start that third volume now.”
I protested feebly and said that the last twelve years had seen my life turn quieter than ever. What could I possibly have to say? She pointed out that the first two volumes of my autobiography were strictly chronological. I recounted events in precise order according to the calendar (thanks to a diary I’ve kept since I turned eighteen, to say nothing of an excellent memory) and I had said almost nothing about my inner being. She said she wanted something else for the third volume. She wanted a retrospective in which true events were secondary to my thoughts, my reactions, my philosophy of life, and so on.
I said, even more feebly, “Who would be interested?”
And she said firmly, for she is even less falsely modest on my behalf than I am on my own, “Everybody!”
I don’t think she’s right, but she might be, so I intend to try. I don’t intend to start where the second volume left off. In fact, it would be dangerous to do so. The first two volumes are out of print and many people who might pick up this volume and find it interesting (stranger things have happened) would be unable to find the first two volumes in either the hard- or soft-cover incarnation and grow seriously annoyed with me.
So what I intend to do is describe my whole life as a way of presenting my thoughts and make it an independent autobiography standing on its own feet. I won’t go into the kind of detail I went into in the first two volumes. What I intend to do is to break the book into numerous section
I trust and hope that, in this way, you will get to know me really well, and, who knows, you may even get to like me. I would like that.
I was born in Russia on January 1, 1920, but my parents emigrated to the United States, arriving on February 23, 1923. That means I have been an American by surroundings (and, five years later, in September 1928, by citizenship) since I was three years old.
I remember virtually nothing of my early years in Russia; I cannot speak Russian; I am not familiar (beyond what any intelligent American would be) with Russian culture. I am completely and entirely American by upbringing and feeling.
But if I now try to discuss myself at the age of three and the years immediately beyond, which I do remember, I am going to have to make statements of the type that have always led some people to accuse me of being “egotistical,” or “vain,” or “conceited.” Or, if they are more dramatic, they say I have “an ego the size of the Empire State Building.”
What can I do? The statements I make certainly seem to make it clear that I think highly of myself, but only for qualities that, in my opinion, deserve admiration. I also have many shortcomings and faults and I admit them freely, but no one seems to notice that.
In any case, when I say something that sounds “vain,” I assure you it is true and I refuse to accept the accusation of vanity until somebody can prove that something I say that sounds vain is not true.
So I will take a deep breath and say that I was an infant prodigy.
I don’t know that there is a good definition of an infant prodigy. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a child of precocious genius.” But how precocious? How much genius?
You hear of children who can read at two, who learn Latin at four, who enter Harvard at the age of twelve. I suppose those are undoubted infant prodigies, and, in that case, I was not one.
I suppose that if I had had a father who was an American intellectual, well off and lost in his study of the classics or of science, and if that father had discovered in me a likely candidate for prodigiousness, he might have driven me onward and gotten something like that out of me. I can only thank whatever chance has guided my life that this was not so.
A force-fed child, driven relentlessly to the very top of his bent, might break under the strain. My father, however, was a small storekeeper, with no knowledge of American culture, with no time to guide me in any way, and no ability to do so even if he had the time. All he could do was to urge me to get good marks in school, and that was something I had every intention of doing anyhow.
In other words, circumstances conspired to allow me to find my own happy level, which turned out to be sufficiently prodigious for all purposes and yet kept the pressure at a sufficiently reasonable value to allow me to chug along rapidly with no feeling of strain whatever. It meant that I kept my “prodigiousness” for all my life, in one way or another.
In fact, when asked if I was an infant prodigy (and I am asked this with disconcerting frequency), I have taken to answering, “Yes, indeed, and I still am.”
I learned to read before I went to school. Spurred on by my realization that my parents could not yet read English, I took to asking the older children on the block to teach me the alphabet and how each letter sounded. I then began to sound out all the words I could find on signs and elsewhere and in that way I learned to read with a minimum of outside help.
When my father discovered that his preschool youngster could read and, moreover, when he found on questioning that the learning was on my own initiative, he was astounded. That may have been the first time he began to suspect that I was unusual. (He kept that feeling all his life, though he never hesitated to criticize me for my many failings.) The fact that he thought I was unusual, and made it clear that he did, gave me the first inkling that I was unusual.
I imagine there must be many children who learned to read before going to school. I taught my younger sister to read before she went to school, for instance, but I taught her. No one taught me.
When I finally entered the first grade in September of 1925, I was astonished at the trouble the other children were having with their reading. I was even more astonished at the fact that after something had been explained to them, they would forget and would have to have it explained again and again.
That, I think, was what I noticed very early in the game; that in my case it was only necessary that I be told once. I did not realize that my memory was remarkable until I noticed that my classmates didn’t have memories like it. I must instantly deny that I have a “photographic memory.” I have been accused of that by those who admire me beyond my deserts but I always say, “I only have a near-photographic memory.”
Actually, my memory for things that are of no particular interest to me is not much better than normal, if that, and I can be guilty of appalling lapses, when my self-absorption gets the better of me. (I can be remarkably self-absorbed.) I once stared at my beautiful daughter, Robyn, without recognizing her, because I did not expect to see her at the time and was only aware of a vaguely familiar face. Nor was Robyn in the least hurt, or even surprised. She turned to the friend at her side and said, “See, I told you that if I just stood here and didn’t say anything, he wouldn’t know me.”
For things that do interest me, and they are many, I have virtually instant recall. Once when I was out of town, my first wife, Gertrude, and her brother, John, were having some small argument, and little Robyn, about ten at the time, was sent up to my office to get down the appropriate volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to settle the matter.
Robyn went rebelliously, saying, “I wish Daddy were home. Then you could just ask him.”
There are, however, difficulties and disadvantages to everything. I may have been gifted with a delightful memory and a quick understanding at a very early stage, but I was not gifted with great experience and a deep understanding of human nature. I did not realize that other children would not appreciate the fact that I knew more than they did and could learn more quicldy than they did.
(Why is it, I wonder, that anyone who displays superior athletic ability is an object of admiration to his classmates, while one who displays superior mental ability is an object of hatred? Is there some hidden understanding that it is brains, not muscles, that define the human being and that children who are not good at athletics are simply not good, while those that are not smart feel themselves to be subhuman? I don’t know.)
The problem was that I did not try to hide my superior mentality. I demonstrated it every day in the classroom, and I never, never, never thought of being “modest” about the matter. I cheerfully made it clear, at all times, that I was very bright, and you can guess the result.
The results were all the more inevitable in that I was small for my age, weak for my age, and younger than anyone else in the class (eventually two and a half years younger due to my being shoved ahead periodically, yet still the “smart kid”).
I was scapegoated. Of course I was.
Eventually, it became plain to me why I was scapegoated, but I spent many years accepting this because I could not bear to hide my brilliance from the eyes of others. In fact, I was scapegoated, with diminishing intensity, right into my early twenties. (Let me, however, not make it seem worse than it was. I was never physically assaulted. I was merely sneered at, derided, and excluded from the society of my peers—all of which I could bear with reasonable equanimity.)
In the end, though, I did learn. There is still no way of hiding the fact that I am unusual, considering the vast number of books I have written and published, and the vast number of subjects I have covered in those books, but I have learned, in ordinary life, to refrain from being on display. I have learned how to “turn it off” and meet people on their own terms.
The result is that I have many friends w
If only an infant prodigy could be prodigious in grasping human nature and not in memory and quickness of intellect alone. But then, not everything is inborn. The truly important parts of life develop slowly with experience, and that person is lucky who can learn them more quickly and with greater ease than I did.
My father, Judah Asimov, was born in Petrovichi, Russia, on December 21, 1896. He was a bright young man who received a complete education within the limits of Orthodox Judaism. He studied the “holy books” assiduously and was fluent in Hebrew as pronounced in his particular Litvak (Lithuanian) dialect. In later life, in our conversations he would delight in quoting from the Bible or the Talmud, in Hebrew, then translating it into Yiddish or English for my benefit and expounding on the matter.
He also gained secular knowledge and could speak, read, and write Russian with great fluency and was well read in Russian literature. He knew Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish stories virtually by heart. I remember him once reciting one to me, in Yiddish, a language I understand.
He knew enough mathematics to serve his father as bookkeeper in the family business. He survived the dark days of World War I without, for some reason, serving in the Russian army. This last was a good thing, for, had he served, the chances were excellent that he would have been killed and I would never have been born. He also survived the disorders that followed the war, marrying my mother sometime in 1918.
Until 1922, despite the dislocations of war, revolution, and civil turmoil, he was doing fairly well in Russia, though, of course, if he had remained there who knows what would have happened to him and to me in the even darker days of Stalin’s tyranny, World War II, and the Nazi occupation of our native region?
Fortunately, we need not speculate on that, because in 1922 my mother’s half brother, Joseph Berman, who had gone to the United States some years before, invited us to come to that land and join him, and my parents, after some agonizing introspection, decided to do so. It was not an easy decision. It meant leaving a small town in which they had lived all their lives, in which all their friends and relatives were to be found, and heading out into an unknown land.
But my parents decided to risk it, and they got in just under the wire, for in 1924 stricter immigration quotas were imposed and we would not have been allowed to enter.
ISAAC ASIMOV SERIES:
Other author's books:
- FoundationI, RobotFoundation and EmpireThe Caves of SteelDavid Starr Space RangerCasebook of the Black WidowersAzazelPebble in the Sky
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