We admire great athletes, especially long-distance runners. Their incredible feats of speed, endurance, and stamina are widely acknowledged and praised. Equally, if not more challenging, are marathons of the mind. These are sustained creative activities of thought that go on for a lifetime.
Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was one of those extraordinary marathon runners of the mind. Asimov wrote over 500 books. While best known for his science fiction, he wrote extensively on science, mathematics, history, and literature. He was a genuine polymath. He wrote some of the best nonfiction books explaining physics, a number of superb books of jokes, and also wrote one of the best books covering all of Shakespeare’s plays!
Asimov was born in Russia, but when he was three years old, his parents emigrated to the US. His father opened a “candy store.” In India, we would call this a local Kirana shop. His father’s shop also sold magazines and newspapers, and the young Asimov read as much as he could lay his hands on.
He woke up early to help his father with the daily newspaper delivery and stocking. Then in the evening, while his friends would play or just “hang out” after school, Asimov again went back to his father’s shop to help. This habit of hard, steady work was to later help Asimov in his writing career.
His father wanted him to be a doctor, and Asimov tried to get admitted to medical school but was rejected twice. He then worked on and got a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Columbia University. His passion from an early age was writing, but he initially found it challenging to make a living out of just writing. He thus joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine in 1949, teaching biochemistry and was on the faculty till 1958. It thus took him till the age of 38 before he could maintain himself by just writing.
Consistent, Long term Writing
Asimov had a daily routine of waking up early. He said that “It is a point of pride with me that though I have an alarm clock, I never set it, but get up at 6 A.M. anyway.” Apart from his three meals, he then worked throughout the day on his writing. He typed at 9- words a minute. He did this day after day, seven days a week, and until he died aged 72. An important aspect is that he loved what he did. Thinking and writing were his passions.
Asimov very rarely accepted lunch or dinner appointments. He wanted no distractions. His home was sparsely decorated with books and research papers taking up most of the space.
On being asked how he got the inspiration for writing so many books on such a wide variety of subjects, Asimov said that he did the same as Isaac Newton, he got his ideas “by thinking and thinking and thinking.”
Asimov was focused on learning and discovering as much as possible about the world. He said that “I couldn’t possibly write the variety of books I manage to do out of the knowledge I had gained in school alone. I had to keep a program of self-education in process.” Thus, his motto was, “To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. Knowledge is not only power; it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved.”
There are two final aspects about Asimov we might all keep in mind. The author Ben Bova described these as Asimov “never used his enormous taken or his powerful position to harm anyone.” He was also “endlessly kind and tremendously generous.”
© Kaikhushru Taraporevala