Book of the week
(Random House, $38)
We return to the life of Thomas Edison again and again because “no inventor did more to nudge the world toward modernity,” said David Oshinsky in The New York Times. The latest Edison biography comes from Edmund Morris, a Pulitzer Prize winner who famously and controversially used a fictional narrator for his 1999 authorized biography of Ronald Reagan. For this 800-page project, Morris, who died in May, made the odd choice of telling Edison’s story backward, one decade at a time. But Morris could really write: “His ability to set a scene, the words aligned in sweet rhythmic cadence, is damn near intoxicating.” And though a reader has to hunt for a central theme, Edison emerges as an unusual and complex figure whose key strength was his relentless focus on the future.
“Edison’s detractors insist his greatest invention was his own fame,” said Casey Cep in The New Yorker. But Morris offers a more balanced perspective. He gives us an Edison who chased publicity in order to fund new pursuits and who made no claim to singular genius. “I never had an idea in my life,” the Midwest native once said, insisting that his breakthroughs—the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the alkaline battery, and so many more—pulled together ideas that were already in the air. The delight of Morris’ book is that it recaptures how magical each invention was to people of the time. It’s worse at capturing Edison the man, beyond his fierce work ethic and general prickliness. And the book isn’t helped by its odd structure. “The whole thing has the halting feel of two steps forward, one step back.”
Morris does land upon one of the great ironies of Edison’s story, said Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. The man whose name has become an eponym for individual genius may have invented nothing more important than Menlo Park, a workplace in New Jersey that was the world’s first industrial research lab and thus a model for innovation through teamwork. Though competitors initially thought it merely wasteful to employ multiple inventors, Edison proved them wrong, and “it is hardly an exaggeration to say that every important technological invention in the 20th century emerged from just the sort of R&D lab that Edison created.” As this book shows, a single man can be a catalyst for rapid, technological progress. At the same time, “inventiveness truly thrives thanks to the industrious many.” ■