Isaac Asimov’s Reading List

Of late, I’ve become somewhat fascinated with the reading lists of folks I find interesting. We have Roosevelt’s reading list, and Hemingway‘s, and sites like Art of Manliness have even begun to make this a feature (only two so far, but I’m sure they’ll post more). We’ve always had lists like the Harvard bookshelf and the ten foot bookshelf, purportedly collecting all of the books a person should read. Even over at TED they’ve compiled a list of recommendations from their guests.

Library (Photo credit: Stewart)

So I was curious – was there such a list from Asimov? It’s no secret I venerate the man as an author. Prolific and knowledgeable, there is a succinctness to much of his writing that I appreciate. Of all the grand masters of Science Fiction, he is probably one of two that I hold in the highest regard, the other being the recently passed Ray Bradbury.

To be fair, as I recall (and I could be mistaken!) Asimov eschewed the reading list concept. As memory serves, he didn’t care for the idea of a single shelf of books being able to encapsulate everything you should read, preferring instead to explore and expand his horizons organically. And yet, there is the curiosity. What books did he read that helped influence the way he wrote? We know from his own autobiographies that he didn’t enjoy modern fiction (except for the mystery) and read primarily from pre-20th century writing.

To answer this question, I’ve looked in the following resources:

A Place That Makes Me Happy: My Library
A Place That Makes Me Happy: My Library (Photo credit: lyzadanger)

I realize that two sources do not a definitive list make, but oddly enough no one else has put together a list that I can find. The world abounds in reading lists of his work, reading order for his fiction, publication order, but seems to come short when it comes to the books that positively influenced him. I’ve put together the following list based on the books he mentions specifically in the above two sources, and from what we can infer because he in turn would write his own tomes on the subject. There were a few books that he specifically listed as having a negative impact, and I almost included them – after all, to know what someone didn’t like is as telling as what they did like – but in the end left them off because it goes against the nature of these lists. And so, the briefly put together list of recommended books from Isaac Asimov.

  • Greek mythology
  • The Illiad, by Homer – read as many times as he could check it out as a youth
  • The Odyssey, Homer
  • The Tempest, Shakespeare
  • Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare
  • Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare
  • Henry IV, Shakespeare
  • Hamlet, Shakespeare
  • King Lear, Shakespeare
  • The Three Musketeers, Dumas
  • The Jealous Gods, Gertrude Atherton
  • The Glory of the Purple, William Stearns Davis
  •  Hendrik van Loon’s book on history (no title given)
  • Victor Duruy‘s history of the world (no title given)
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Pickwick Papers, Dickens
  • Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens
  • The Bible

From his own publications, we can surmise  he also enjoyed:

  • Shakespeare in general
  • Don Juan, Byron
  • Gilbert and Sullivan
  • Paradise Lost, Milton
  • Sherlock Holmes

It is important to remember at this juncture that these are just the random titles he mentioned, mostly in chapter 8 of I, Asimov, and is not a comprehensive list. Still, it’s an interesting insight into the influences of a unarguably prolific writer.

Thanks to Jamie Rubin, who acted as expert in residence for me when I couldn’t think of where to look for one of the Asimov references in this post. Thanks, Jamie!

P.S. Yes, there’s a little extra bookshelf porn in this post. I wrote a post about books – I’m allowed a little dalliance every now and then 😉

Thoughts from the library

I’m sitting in the local branch of our library system while two of the kids go off to look at books and learn new things. If today goes well, I’d like this to be something we do more often. Growing up, the library was one of those “refuges” from the real world that I recall going too often. Not that the real world was hard for me – I had a good life, happy home, never truly wanting (“comfortable middle class” is probably an apt description). But it was in the stacks of the library, whether in the heat of the summer or the chills of winter, that I would lose myself. There was just so much potential knowledge here, so much I could learn and ingest if I just reached out and looked.

I don’t want to force this on the kids, but I would like them to have the opportunity to experience it. Maybe they won’t embrace it; maybe they will. Right now Youngest Daughter, having found the books she wants to read, is off with her marge notebook writing. Oldest daughter is browsing the teen section, having finally reached that age where the Juvenile books aren’t up to muster.

Isaac Asimov
Cover of Isaac Asimov

And then there’s me, laptop and notepad, sitting at a study carrel, trying to hammer out a few words n the novel. OK, I’ve actually spent my time researching whether Isaac Asimov ever put together a reading list (a recent interest of mine). Thanks to some help from Jamie Rubin, a sort of Asimov Expert in Residence, I’ve managed to track down a short list of books that Asimov mentions as being influential, and we can deduce from his own published books what some of his other interests were. After all, if you publish a definitive guide to Shakespeare, chances are the old Bard is probably on your list somewhere (it is). As an odd junction between Asimov and libraries (he was a huge fan), I leave you with this quote from I, Asimov: A Memoir, chapter 8, page 29 in the Kindle edition:

Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.

OK, back to hacking out some words for me. Which in a sense is really an act of channelling Ray Bradbury, not Asimov, come to think of it. After all, it was in a library that Fahrenheit 451 was written 🙂

On writing the latest draft

As I start this blog post, I have just finished the first draft of the current novel. With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful, if not to you then to me, to lay out some of the lessons learned in writing this first draft.

  1. It’s just the first draft. That means that changes in character, motivations, and back story are allowed, you just need to remember to fix them later. This is a draft only – nothing is set in stone.
  2. Comments are the secret to not back tracking. I wrote the first part of this novel in Google Docs, switching over to Scrivener after the first 20k or so because I needed Scrivener’s ability to quickly move between segments (scenes) in the book without have to cut and paste large blocks of text. A feature of both writing tools (to use the phrase lightly), and that I exploited in both environments, is the comments button. With a single button you can make a note to check a fact, verify a bit of back story, or just of an idea for something without actually going back and interrupting your current progress.
  3. Always write forward. It’s hard not to go back and make changes, or make additions, but always moving forward was how I carried the momentum from start to finish. This is different than not adding chapters or scenes – I’m talking, mostly, about editing yesterday’s work. Don’t. Just write forward.
  4. Writing goals suck, but can work. I’m not the kind of person that’s going to be able to say I have 365 days of solid writing – I need to recharge my batteries, life happens, etc.. But during the course of writing this novel, despite the fact that there were two weeks (one in November, and one in December) where I did no writing at all, I aimed at a bare minimum of 500 words a day. I didn’t always meet that number, especially in the last week or so when the day job started to catch up with me. For most of January, though, I was able to target 1k a day, and that really made all the difference. 35k of the just over 60k novel (so far, first draft, caveat lector, etc.) was written in January alone.  If you haven’t tried them, and your project feels like it needs that boost of momentum, you should give it a shot, even if your target number isn’t high. Sometimes that’s all that matters.
  5. Know your length. Past writing experience has taught me to “feel” how long a story will be. I knew starting out that my first draft of this novel was going to be roughly 60k, and so far that isn’t far off the mark (I hit 60k yesterday, while I’m in the final chapters).
  6. I didn’t outline – but I did draw some pictures. Probably sounds silly, but it worked. They let me visualize where I wanted the story to be at certain junctions, and left me free to write my way to them. I didn’t stay true to them, not 100%, but they gave me a kind of storyboard hint at where I was heading in all of this.
  7. The first draft is crap. So set it aside when you’re done and come back to it after its had time to mature in your head. I know, it’s a little to early for me to say this – with this project. But this is a lesson I have fought tooth and nail my entire adult life, and have only in the last few months come to truly appreciate. Maybe you do write the perfect piece on the first go. I used to think I did. I also have never sold anything, so that tells you something. Take your first draft, whatever it is (short story, novella, novel, whatever) and put it aside for a few months. Get your mind on something else. Then come back to it and revisit what you wrote. If you feel no compunction to make any changes – no additions, retractions, or modifications of any kind – cool. But for me, I’ve begrudgingly come to realize, I can’t do it like I thought I could all those years.

The novel ended at 62k. I’m sure that in the next pass I will add to that while cleaning up, but I’m satisfied with this first pass. Now I plan on taking some time to recharge my batteries before diving into my next effort.


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