Cover image for It's been a good life
It's been a good life
Asimov, Isaac, 1920-1992.
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Publication Information:
Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 2002.
Physical Description:
309 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
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PS3551.S5 Z473 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
PS3551.S5 Z473 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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PS3551.S5 Z473 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



New one-volume autobiography spans Asimov's life for the first time!

As one of the most gifted and prolific writers of the twentieth century, Isaac Asimov became legendary for his inexhaustible creativity, wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, and talent for explaining complex subjects in clear, concise prose. While regaling his readers with an incredible opus of almost five hundred entertaining and illuminating science fiction and nonfiction books, he also found time to write a three-volume autobiography. Now these volumes have been condensed into one by Asimov's wife, Janet, who also shares excerpts from letters he wrote to her. Together these writings provide an intimate portrait of a creative genius whose love of learning and playing with ideas is evident on every page.

Reading this autobiography is like sitting down with Isaac Asimov and experiencing his witty, engaging, and brilliant personality firsthand. We are treated to many marvelous stories about his upbringing in Depression-era Brooklyn, his early fascination with the new science fiction pulp magazines, the thrill of his first published story, the creation of his well-known story "Nightfall," the genesis of the Foundation series, and the evolution of his creative life as a writer.

He also reveals his inner thoughts about and experiences with various luminaries in science and science fiction. Above all, Asimov's autobiography conveys unbounded enthusiasm for his craft, the infectious joy of learning and creating, complete intellectual honesty, his strong humanist convictions, and his infinite fund of good humor and optimism even at the end of his life - all told in the lively clear writing style that was his trademark.

Although Janet Jeppson Asimov concludes this work with a shocking revelation about her husband's death, the volume is clearly intended as a celebration - as the title suggests - of a wonderful, creative life. As a poignant coda to this work, Janet has appended one short story that was Isaac's favorite, and his 400th essay on this thoughts about science.

Author Notes

Isaac Asimov was born in Petrovichi, Russia, on January 2, 1920. His family emigrated to the United States in 1923 and settled in Brooklyn, New York, where they owned and operated a candy store. Asimov became a naturalized U.S. citizen at the age of eight. As a youngster he discovered his talent for writing, producing his first original fiction at the age of eleven. He went on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, publishing nearly 500 books in his lifetime.

Asimov was not only a writer; he also was a biochemist and an educator. He studied chemistry at Columbia University, earning a B.S., M.A. and Ph.D. In 1951, Asimov accepted a position as an instructor of biochemistry at Boston University's School of Medicine even though he had no practical experience in the field. His exceptional intelligence enabled him to master new systems rapidly, and he soon became a successful and distinguished professor at Columbia and even co-authored a biochemistry textbook within a few years.

Asimov won numerous awards and honors for his books and stories, and he is considered to be a leading writer of the Golden Age of science fiction. While he did not invent science fiction, he helped to legitimize it by adding the narrative structure that had been missing from the traditional science fiction books of the period. He also introduced several innovative concepts, including the thematic concern for technological progress and its impact on humanity.

Asimov is probably best known for his Foundation series, which includes Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. In 1966, this trilogy won the Hugo award for best all-time science fiction series. In 1983, Asimov wrote an additional Foundation novel, Foundation's Edge, which won the Hugo for best novel of that year. Asimov also wrote a series of robot books that included I, Robot, and eventually he tied the two series together. He won three additional Hugos, including one awarded posthumously for the best non-fiction book of 1995, I. Asimov. "Nightfall" was chosen the best science fiction story of all time by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

In 1979, Asimov wrote his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green. He continued writing until just a few years before his death from heart and kidney failure on April 6, 1992.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Asimov's widow has ably condensed his three-volume autobiography into one handy book covering his life from birth in Russia and immigration with his parents and through careers as a scientist, an sf writer, and a science popularizer, and touching on matters of his humanist faith and his numerous works on the way to his final illness. That, an afterword imparts, was the result of HIV infection from contaminated blood transfusions during bypass surgery in 1983. The reader also learns enough about Janet Jeppson Asimov through her editing, letters, and comments to make her seem more than worthy of an autobiography herself. This is a good introduction to one of the most prolific and distinguished careers in twentieth-century American letters, especially for those unready to immerse themselves in the complete Asimov self-life. It may, however, generate demand among serious sf students for its three-tome source. --Roland Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

Condensed by Asimov's widow from the remarkably prolific author's three-volume autobiography, this fascinating but somewhat disjointed collection of excerpts conveys the exuberant spirit of one of the most celebrated founding fathers and eighth Grand Master of American science fiction, who died in 1992. As a child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Asimov gazed longingly at encyclopedias in more affluent friends' homes, and grew up to be a walking encyclopedia himself: a self-educated polymath and humanist, he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and later received over a dozen honorary doctorates. Asimov's widow presents chronologically his thoughts on his writing in the context of his life and his lifelong secular humanism; she connects them with a minimum of editorial comment and occasionally adds illuminating passages from their previously unpublished private correspondence. Also included are a brief chronology of Asimov's life; his posthumous 400th essay "A Way of Thinking," which his wife assembled from their discussions and letters defending "Reason against Chaos"; Asimov's favorite among his multitudinous short stories, "The Last Question," which is quintessential Asimov in its spare, conversational style simmering with optimistic cosmic humor; and the surprising revelation that Asimov's 1992 death was caused by complications from AIDS, which he had contracted through blood transfusions during his 1983 bypass surgery. Generously exposing both Asimov's immense talents as a science fiction author and his ruefully amusing self-deprecating punctures of his own early inflated self-image, this readable and idiosyncratic self-portrait should attract a whole new generation of readers to Asimov's fine creative works. Photos. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Isaac Asimov the author of hundreds of books, both fiction and nonfiction, including the "Foundation" series was a rationalist, convinced that the act of writing was Heaven for him. That rationalism is evident in his three-volume autobiography, which has been condensed into this single-volume work, accompanied by some personal letters compiled by his second wife, Janet Jeppison Asimov. Asimov's know-how, opinions, joys, and successes as a writer, educator, soldier, husband, father, and general intellectual show-off are detailed to varying degrees, but so are his booby prizes. He readily admits to being very self-involved, a necessity for a writer of his output, but such self-centeredness did not work well for his first marriage. It is, however, impossible not to like Asimov and his enthusiasm, even glee, for life as it comes. Asimov was often ill later in life, but his optimism and love of learning remained. Janet Asimov presents a "revelation" in the epilog of this book, but the impression that will last is of Isaac Asimov, the humanist. Recommended for all libraries. Robert L. Kelly, Ft. Wayne Community Schs., IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One RUSSIA I am not impressed by ancestry, since if I could trace my origins to Judas Maccabeus or to King David, that would not add one inch to my stature, either physically, mentally, or ethically. It's even possible that my ancestry might not move in the direction of ancient Israel at all.     About 600 C.E., a Turkish tribe, the Khazars, lived in what is now southern Russia. They established an empire that reached its peak about 750 C.E., [and] about that time, the Khazars adopted Judaism as the state religion, [probably] to keep from falling under the influence of either the Byzantine Christians or the Arab Moslems, who were busily engaged in the first part of their centuries-long duel.     After 965, the Khazars were through as an organized power, but Judaism may have remained, and it may well be that many East European Jews are descended from Khazars and the people they ruled. I may be one of them. Who knows? And who cares?     My mother [Anna Rachel Berman] had blue eyes, and in her youth, light hair. Though my father [Judah] was brown-eyed and brown-haired, there must have been a recessive blue-eyed gene there too, for my brother, my sister, and I all have blue eyes. My hair was brown, but both my brother and sister had reddish hair. My brother's daughter has bright red hair and blue eyes; my own daughter has blond hair and blue eyes. What's more, I've got high Slavic cheekbones.     Where did all this come from? Surely not from any Mediterranean or Turkish people. It had to be of Slavic origin and Scandinavian beyond that--plus a bit of Mongol to account for my B-type blood.     The date of my birth, as I celebrate it, was January 2, 1920. It could not have been later than that. It might, however, have been earlier. Allowing for the uncertainties of the times, of the lack of records, of the Jewish and Julian calendars, it might have been as early as October 4, 1919. My parents were always uncertain and it really doesn't matter.     I was born in the little town of Petrovichi, in the USSR, fifty-five miles due south of Smolensk (where a great battle was fought during Napoleon's invasion of 1812, and another during Hitler's invasion of 1941). It is farther north than the territory of any of the states but Alaska.     According to my father's golden memories, I was "the healthiest possible" baby for two years and then I got double pneumonia. In later years, my mother told me that seventeen infants had fallen ill and that I was the only survivor [because after] the doctor had given me up she held me in her arms without ever letting go until I had recovered.     My father was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. My mother was literate and could read and write both Russian and Yiddish. They spoke Russian to each other when they wanted to discuss something privately. Had they spoken to me in Russian, I would have picked it up like a sponge and had a second world language.     It would have been good to know the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Doestoevski. [But] allow me my prejudice: surely there is no language more majestic than that of Shakespeare, Milton, and the King James Bible, and if I am to have one language I know as only a native can know it, I consider myself unbelievably fortunate that it is English. Chapter Two THE UNITED STATES In 1922, after my sister, Marcia, was born, my father decided to emigrate to the United States. My mother had a half brother living in New York who was willing to guarantee that we would not become a charge on the country; that, plus permission from the Soviet Government, was all we needed.     I am not sorry we left. I dare say that if my family had remained in the Soviet Union, I would have received an education similar to the one I actually did get, that I might well have become a chemist and even a science-fiction writer. On the other hand, there is a very good chance that I would then have been killed in the course of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 to 1945, and while I hope I would have done my bit first, I am glad I didn't have to. I am prejudiced in favor of life.     My father came to the United States in the hope of a better life for his children, and this he certainly achieved. He lived to see one son a successful writer, another son a successful journalist, and a daughter happily married. However, this was at great cost to himself.     In Russia, he was part of a reasonably prosperous merchant family, an educated man looked up to by those about him for his learning. In the United States, he found himself penniless ... and virtually illiterate, for he could not read or even speak English. He turned his hand to any job he could get and after three years had saved enough money for a down payment on a small mom-and-pop candy store and our future was assured--and shaped.     In Russia, my mother had been the oldest of numerous siblings and had to take care of them in addition to working in her mother's store. In the United States, she had to raise three children and work endless hours in the candy store ...     All in all, my family was never together and I never interacted with any of them except in the context of the candy store. It was in that respect that I was orphaned in a functional sense. In another sense, matters were quite the reverse. My parents were always home; I always knew where they were, so that I was too densely sheltered.     Then again [thanks to the long working hours], we could have no social life, so I interacted with no one but my immediate family. That, too, twisted and distorted my life and my personality in ways that must be all too apparent even now.     Despite all that education and experience can do, I retain a certain level of unsophistication that I cannot eradicate and that my friends find amusing ... I suspect that I am never quite as unsophisticated as they think I am, but I don't mind.     No one can possibly have lived through the Great Depression without being scarred by it.... No "Depression baby" can ever be a yuppie. No amount of experience since the Depression can convince someone who has lived through it that the world is safe economically. One constantly waits for banks to close, for factories to shut down, for the pink slip of discharge.     Well, the Asimov family escaped. Not by much. We were poor , but we always had enough to put food on the table and to pay the rent. Never were we threatened by hunger and eviction. And why? The candy store. It brought in enough to support us. Only minimally, to be sure, but in the Great Depression, even minimally was heaven [with the price of incredibly long working hours for Isaac's parents and for him]....     I am still and forever in the candy store. Of course, I'm not taking money and making change; I'm not forced to be polite to everyone who comes in (in actual fact, I was never very good at that). I am, instead, doing things I very much want to do--but the schedule is there; the schedule that was ground into me; the schedule you would think I would have rebelled against once I had the chance.     I can only say that there were certain advantages offered by the candy store that had nothing to do with mere survival, but, rather, with overflowing happiness, and that this was so associated with the long hours as to make them sweet to me and to fix them upon me for all my life. [And Isaac goes on to describe finding science-fiction magazines for sale in the candy store] ...     The science-fiction magazines were the first pulp magazines I was allowed to read. That may have been part of the reason that, when the time came for me to be a writer, it was science-fiction that I chose as my medium.     Another reason was science fiction's more extended grasp on the young imagination. It was science fiction that introduced me to the universe, in particular to the solar system and the planets. Even if I had already come across them in my reading of science books, it was science fiction that fixed them in my mind, dramatically and forever ...     However trashy pulp fiction might be, it had to be read . Youngsters avid for the corny, lightning-jagged, cliché-ridden, clumsy stories had to read words and sentences to satisfy their craving. It trained everyone who read it in literacy, and a small percentage of them may then have passed on to better things ...     In general, the trend over the last half century or so has been away from the word to the picture. The comic magazines increased the level of looking, decreased the level of reading. The television set has carried this to an extreme. Even the slick magazines found themselves dying because of competition with the picture magazines of the 1940s and the girlie magazines that followed.     In short, the age of the pulp magazine was the last in which youngsters, to get their primitive material, were forced to be literate. Now ... true literacy is becoming an arcane art, and the nation is steadily "dumbing down." Chapter Three CITY CHILD [About neighborhood games] I refused to play for keeps. What I wanted to do was merely win for the honor of winning and I did not want to confuse this with material gain. This was called "playing for fun." ... My father approved of my refusal to play for keeps. In fact, he was dubious about my playing for fun, since he felt that my time could be spent much more instructively practicing my reading or studying or trying to think great thoughts.     To my father, any boy who played ball in the street was a "bum" and was clearly in training to become a "gangster." ... "Remember, Isaac," he would say, "if you hang around with bums, don't think for a minute you will make a good person out of the bum. No! That bum will make a bum out of you."     The result was that since I didn't play punchball often enough to develop real skill, I was an undesirable choice for a team. I developed a series of solitary ball games ...     [In the neighborhood] the cheers, the arguments, the screaming must have been unbearable to people trying to carry on ordinary occupations. The thunk-thunk-thunk, steady and unwearying over the house, of my ball against a wall must have driven many a person insane, too. The noise was an inseparable part of the world.     And, of course, it was pleasure. I have never been able to work up much sympathy for those who mourn the plight of city children (Continues...) Excerpted from It's Been a Good Life by Isaac Asimov. Copyright © 2002 by Janet Jeppson Asimov. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 7
Chronologyp. 9
1. Russiap. 11
2. The United Statesp. 13
3. City Childp. 17
4. Religionp. 19
5. Prodigyp. 27
6. Becoming a Writerp. 33
7. Science-Fiction Fanp. 39
8. Starting to Write Science Fictionp. 43
9. Writing Progressp. 57
10. Famous Fictionp. 65
11. During the Warp. 71
12. Postwar, and the Armyp. 83
13. Becoming a Ph.D.p. 91
14. Postdocp. 105
15. Teaching, Writing, and Speakingp. 111
16. Beyond Limitationsp. 127
17. Limitations Camep. 135
18. Going Onp. 137
19. Major Nonfictionp. 143
20. Writing and Thinking about Writingp. 147
21. On Prolificityp. 151
22. On Writers' Problemsp. 155
23. Miscellaneous Opinions and Quirksp. 159
24. Sexism and Lovep. 167
25. Life While Famousp. 171
26. The Biblep. 179
27. Changesp. 183
28. Shakespearep. 187
29. New Experiments in Writingp. 189
30. More Working with Wordsp. 193
31. Isaac, Himselfp. 199
32. More on Writingp. 203
33. Heart Attackp. 211
34. Extending Two Seriesp. 215
35. Triple Bypassp. 223
36. Humanistsp. 231
37. Senior Citizen and Honorsp. 235
38. Working on in Gathering Shadowsp. 241
Epiloguep. 251
Appendix A. Essay 400--"A Way of Thinking"p. 257
Appendix B. Isaac's Personal Favorite: "The Last Question"p. 275
Appendix C. A Bibliography of Works by Isaac Asimovp. 289
Indexp. 307