Tuesday, April 16, 2019


I may already be running out of books to read in the biography/autobiography/memoir category and am having difficulty finding suitable ones. In high school I was interested in Albert Einstein; I hadn't read about him in years and decided to have another go. At the moment I'm giving up on Einstein: A Biography, by Jürgen Neffe. I had thought that a German author might produce a better book than a popular American author, but I don't like this one much. Neffe dances around the facts without getting to the point. He seems to do an adequate job with Einstein's scientific ideas, while dawdling over and speculating about the irresponsible and salacious aspects of Einstein's life. In this case, the problem is partly Einstein himself. He had an unusual personality in the sense that he was brainy, an introvert and a divergent thinker, but in other respects he was utterly conventional for his period. His upbringing was completely bourgeois, and by our standards he was an unapologetic sexist. He had at least one illegitimate child and didn't take very good care of his wife or his schizophrenic son. He peaked in his thirties as a scientist, with the general theory of relativity in 1915, but lived another forty years. Part of the problem with Einstein as a biographical subject is that he became too famous for his own good. Many people were involved with the management of his public image during and after his life, and there is a cult-like reverence for him to this day. My feeling is that, aside from his scientific work, he was not that exceptional. In fact, once he became famous, he was an ordinary skirt chaser, like most men. In a way, Richard Feynman was more honorable in this respect, because he was honest about it.

It may be easier to find suitable biographical subjects prior to the twentieth century, which is when the cult of personality exploded. You can see hints of its development in the eighteenth century, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but nothing like what we have today. People need to be reminded occasionally that every person who ever lived was mortal and, therefore, could at most be only a notch or two above most others – and certainly never dwelled on Mount Olympus. As I continue to seek biographical writings about recent subjects, it may be best to look for ones about people who aren't conspicuously famous. If my readers are getting tired of my tendency to demythologize, all I can say is that someone has to do it. Hero-worship, delusional thinking and brainwashing all go hand-in-hand, and the record must be set straight from time to time. Although one might argue that it is a self-justifying rationalization, I feel lucky that I'm not famous and don't have to deal with the unpleasant ramifications of fame. The anonymous life has its advantages.

The crocuses are up and the daffodils will be flowering soon. We are in the middle of Vermont's mud season, probably the ugliest time of year here. I sawed off some gray birch limbs that were damaged by a late snow and placed a few of them in the path to the woods to provide solid footing through the mud. The snow thrower has been put away for the season, and in a few weeks I'll be mowing the lawn again.

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