Asimov on Creativity

This has been making the circles this week, but just in case your circles don’t include some of my circles, I thought I’d share. An article Asimov was hired to write on creativity for Allied Research Associates back in the late 50’s has recently surfaced. Reminiscent of other Asimov essays, I thought you all might enjoy.  Speaking from personal experience, it’s true that sometimes the best new ideas come as a result of sharing what’s already known with a small likeminded group. I’d just hate to think that means meetings are worth it.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

via Published for the First Time: a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity | MIT Technology Review.

I know I reference Asimov occasionally on here, and I’d like to (briefly) explain. It’s not that I think he is the penultimate in writers – he was as flawed as the rest of us. No, I admire both his proclivity as well as the breadth of his written works, combined with his simple, straightforward writing style. While a fantastic science fiction author, he didn’t let genre – or fiction – limit his writing. The article on creativity doesn’t bring much new to the subject, although it predates some of the group meeting styles I’m familiar with.

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 🙂