Walter Isaacson: By the Book

Walter Isaacson: By the Book


Which book was most helpful to you in working on your biography of Leonardo da Vinci?

Leonardo’s own notebooks. More than 7,000 pages still, miraculously, survive. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely (and fortunately) won’t be. Leonardo crammed every page with drawings and looking-glass notes that seem random but provide intimations of his mental leaps. Scribbled alongside each other, with rhyme if not reason, are math calculations, sketches of his devilish young boyfriend, birds, flying machines, theater props, eddies of water, blood valves, grotesque heads, angels, sawed-apart skulls, tips for painters, and studies for paintings. I love his to-do lists, which have entries like “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” It was fun to go see them in places like Windsor Castle, Florence, Milan, and Paris. Bill Gates has one of the best notebooks, the “Codex Leicester,” filled with geology studies; Martin Kemp and Domenico Laurenza gave me access to a new translation they are doing that will be published next year. My assistant Pat Zindulka gave me a two-volume set that her late husband owned of J. P. Richter’s compilations in Italian and English, which is a delight.

Which classic novel did you recently read for the first time?

When I was a teenager my father bought a copy of James Baldwin’s “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” and was deeply affected by it. When Dad died earlier this year, I found it on his shelf and read it. I wish I had read it when he first asked me to.

Which books do you think best capture the current social and political moment in America?

“All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren.

As for nonfiction, I wish everyone would read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” and J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” together. America’s unifying creed was that we were a land of opportunity, where our kids would be better off than we were, but for an unnecessarily large number of people that no longer feels true. Also, Kurt Andersen’s “Fantasyland.” Our current wave of crackpot conspiracies and tribal paranoias is nothing new, and Kurt traces their roots back four centuries.

Which historians and biographers do you most admire?

When I was in college, biographies had fallen out of favor in the academy, and that opened the way for some nonacademics to produce brilliant works that combined dogged research and delightful writing. Robert Caro’s descriptions of electrification coming to the Texas hill country and Margaret Frost trying to register to vote in Alabama still send chills up my spine. I also love David McCullough, who finds troves of golden nuggets when he pans through archives: he could even make the saga of pioneers settling Missouri into a riveting drama. And Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose tale of Teddy Roosevelt barnstorming America for “a square deal for every man, great or small, rich or poor” should be read by every politician.

They paved the way for a lot of my friends from my journalism days whose biographies and narrative histories I savor: Evan Thomas, Jon Meacham, Nick Lemann, Strobe Talbott, Ken Auletta, Michael Beschloss, David Remnick, Bob Woodward, A. Scott Berg, Cokie Roberts, Jennet Conant, Sally Bedell Smith, Jon Alter, Chris Matthews, Joel Achenbach, Richard Reeves, and a slew of soon-to-be-annoyed-former friends I forgot to mention (hmmm… I guess this was a path down which I should not have gone).

And which novelists do you especially enjoy reading?

Walker Percy. With a grace worn lightly, he used his background as a doctor who didn’t practice and a Catholic who did in order to probe the human condition and how we fit into the cosmos.

Which fiction and nonfiction writers inspired you most early your career? And which ones working today do you most admire?

I was inspired early on by David Halberstam, whose “The Best and the Brightest” served as a model when Evan Thomas and I wrote “The Wise Men.” I liked his intense reporting, pithy descriptions, and tumbling sentences even after Nick Lemann did a memorable parody of him in The New Republic. Also, Anthony Lewis, whose “Gideon’s Trumpet” dazzles from the opening scene of Gideon’s petition arriving in a manila envelope at the Supreme Court to his answer of “Well I did” at the end when asked if he accomplished something.

Nowadays, I am inspired by Michael Lewis, who gently hides moral tales of biblical proportion inside disarming narratives of ordinary people, and Brian Greene, who has taken the beautiful brushstrokes of physics and made them accessible to the general public, kids and now even theatergoers.

Which genres do you avoid?

How-to and secrets-of-success books. I could probably benefit from them, but I prefer narratives and biographies that allow me to extract my own lessons.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? Morning or night?

I actually find it easy to read books on the Kindle app on my iPhone, which is great when I travel. I read and write at night. Mornings are not my favorite daypart.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have a weakness for cyberpunk. I jacked into it during the 1980s when I subscribed to Omni and read William Gibson’s story “Johnny Mnemonic,” which led me to his novel “Neuromancer.” The hero is a console-cowboy hacker who gets data stored in his brain, which first ignited my interest in artificial intelligence, hacking and cybertechnology. I also love Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash,” which 25 years ago foresaw a virtual-reality metaverse that might supplant the internet and a blockchain-like successor to fiat currency. And Bruce Sterling, who in the early 1980s wrote of a future in which those who pursue genetic modification of humans will compete with those who push cybernetic augmentation and artificial intelligence. Wow. When I was an editor at Time, we ended up doing an offbeat cover on cyberpunk culture. It may have been our worst-selling issue of the year.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was not one of those voracious early readers, but I loved the Winnie the Pooh books. I still smile at the thought of Edward Bear coming bump, bump, bump down the stairs, wondering if there may be some other way, and I get wistful remembering that final scene where Christopher Robin puts out his hand, feels for Pooh’s paw and tries to say goodbye. I continue to believe that in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

“Moby-Dick.”

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Well, rather unsurprisingly, I would have Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci. They were all wonderful writers, and they would have a jolly time explaining things to one another.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t?

I’m on the dark side of “The Great Gatsby” debate. It always struck me as a brace of brilliant sentences glistening inside of an inert novel. I found its characters to be emotionally and morally unengaging.

Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?

“Leonardo da Vinci” is for me the culmination of trying to write about the creativity that comes from appreciating the crosscurrents that connect the arts, sciences and humanities. He was the person in history who most playfully and fervently tried to learn everything there was to know about everything that could be known.

Who would you want to write your life story?

Those of us who write about people in the arena should not fall prey to the conceit that we are likewise in the arena and deserve to have our life stories written.

What do you plan to read next?

I’m going back home to New Orleans to teach at Tulane, and I want to know everything I can about my city. So, I’m planning to read or re-read Lawrence Powell’s “The Accidental City,” Richard Campanella’s “Bienville’s Dilemma,” Dan Baum’s “Nine Lives,” Ned Sublette’s “The World That Made New Orleans,” and Ernest J. Gaines’s “A Lesson Before Dying.” I’m particularly interested in Storyville, the early 20th century red-light district that offers fascinating lessons about sex, race, class and all that jazz. So I’ve just started Kim Marie Vaz’s “The ‘Baby Dolls,’” which traces back one of the earliest black women’s Mardi Gras organizations to its roots in Storyville. I also have Pamela Arceneaux’s “Guidebooks to Sin,” Al Rose’s “Storyville, New Orleans,” Emily Landau’s “Spectacular Wickedness,” and Gary Krist’s “Empire of Sin,” which I reviewed a while back for these pages.



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