I meet with Walter Isaacson in a small convention room within the places of work of e book writer Simon & Schuster. The partitions are festooned with framed covers, together with after all Isaacson’s mega-bestseller Steve Jobs. I’m certain some other place within the workplace are covers representing his different topics—Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Jennifer Doudna—which collectively have earned him the sobriquet “biographer of genius.” It’s a singular and enviable shift in profession focus for Isaacson, whose principal gig for years has been as a high editor and administrator for Time Journal, the Aspen Institute, and CNN. Now I’m placing myself amongst his numerous interlocutors forward of an epic e book tour for what may be his greatest e book but. It’s a forest-clearing doorstop of prose primarily based on two years spent observing the person who is maybe the world’s most formidable pursuer of the long run—one whose periodically wretched character has made him an object of worry and scorn. Local weather change however, nobody has sucked up extra oxygen within the tech and enterprise world than Elon Musk, and with this eponymous biography, Isaacson has made a case that every one that spotlight is justified.
The biographer-subject bond between Isaacson and Musk appears predetermined. Musk, whose ego is interplanetary, was so keen so as to add himself to Isaacson’s bookshelf of geniuses that he tweeted the e book challenge as a completed deal minutes after an off-the-cuff exploratory assembly. The chief of Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, The Boring Firm, xAI, and X (“Twitter” had an insufficiently Bond-villain ring), gave his chosen Boswell unbelievable entry. This allowed Issacson to share Musk’s secrets and techniques for getting issues completed when the US authorities and Detroit carmakers couldn’t, together with his inquisitorial cost-cutting routine, dubbed “The Algorithm.” The 71-year-old legacy-media veteran spent tons of of hours actually inside arm’s attain of his topic, observing Musk as he destroyed launch pads, humiliated Tesla staff, and swung a wrecking ball at Twitter’s tradition. Relations, ex-wives, and parenting companions shared their views, together with annoyed complaints about Musk’s cruelty and impulsivity. One scene is straight out of a French farce: Unbeknownst to both of Musk’s parenting companions, each are in the identical hospital, one giving start to his twins and the opposite serving to a surrogate ship one other fruit of his loins. (Among the many many surprises within the e book is that Musk and his sometimes-partner Grimes have a hitherto unannounced third baby. Grimes, you held this again from me!)
I ask Isaacson if he was ready for Musk experiencing what appeared like a meltdown in the course of the real-time analysis on the e book. Actually, when the challenge started there was no approach to know Musk would interact in a trainwreck takeover of Twitter, alienating customers and advertisers and, extra just lately, seeming guilty all of it on the Jews, even suing the Anti-Defamation League for noticing an explosion of anti-Semitism on the platform now known as X. “For lots of people, his tweets simply put them over the sting,” says Isaacson. “Doing a tweet attacking the ADL is simply flawed.” Whereas Isaacson will name Musk out on particular horrors, his strategy within the e book is to current his analysis in 95 vignette-like chapters, each a nibble of the bigger narrative of Muskitude. He leaves it to readers to finally determine for themselves whether or not they need to applaud or cancel Musk.
Having some publicity to so-called geniuses myself (just a few of whom have really earned the appellation), I’ve lengthy contemplated the query of what makes extraordinary individuals so extraordinary. Isaacson has derived his personal reply. Sure, true genius includes blazing mind, persistence, exhausting work, and good timing. However Isaacson all the time appears to uncover a darkness most frequently rooted in childhood—a rosebud. In case you’re not accustomed to the time period, it refers back to the mysterious phrase uttered on the deathbed of the central determine in Orson Welles’ basic film Citizen Kane. Spoiler alert: We study within the final scene that it’s the model title of the sled that symbolized the protagonists’ final idyllic wisp of childhood earlier than he was taken from his mom and cruelly thrust right into a dog-eat-dog world the place he grew to become the meanest canine of all.
“You attempt to determine what drives an individual,” says Isaacson. “And for me or any biographer, it typically goes again to childhood. A variety of the individuals I write about are misfits.” Within the biographical Isaacson-verse, Steve Jobs’ rosebud was that he was adopted and has spent a lifetime coping with a perceived rejection from his start mother and father. Einstein needed to overcome rising up Jewish in Nineteenth-century Germany, watching his father go bankrupt. Reaching again centuries, the biographer even dug up Leonardo da Vinci’s battered sled. “Leonardo is rising up on this village of Vinci as an illegitimate, left-handed homosexual, whose father refuses to legitimize him,” Isaacson says.
Musk’s rosebud is a feral childhood in South Africa, with a surprisingly abusive father who nonetheless haunts the grownup Elon. Mates, kinfolk, and Isaacson himself continuously remind us of Musk’s battle to not change into just like the vicious anti-Semite, grifter, and step-daughter-impregnator Errol Musk. (It’s not going effectively on some fronts.) The Elon Musk that Isaacson presents to us is a Jekyll and Hyde character who veers between partaking visionary and bullying authoritarian with a penchant for fart jokes. Within the scheme of Isaacson’s narrative, nevertheless, the more serious Musk’s habits will get, the extra the e book appears to argue that the misbehavior of the richest particular person on the planet is just a product of the wrongs completed to him when he was briefly pants. Inevitably, this winds up making Isaacson seem like a protection lawyer asking for mercy for his shopper due to a troubled previous. Once I ask Isaacson whether or not, after on a regular basis spent with Musk, he really likes the man, his reply is that it relies upon which Musk he’s with. Utilizing a time period from Grimes, he says that he noticed many harrowing cases during which Musk went into “demon mode.” Others would possibly object that previous “demons” don’t decide somebody’s present habits—it’s the precise one that commits the devilry.
I point out to Isaacson the distinction between his biographical strategy and that of, say, Robert Caro, the obsessive completist who wrote the basic bio of New York’s imperious masterbuilder Robert Moses and is at present combating quantity 5 of his Lyndon Johnson challenge. If Caro have been writing a Musk biography, it might be a toss-up whether or not he completed it earlier than his topic flew off to Mars. Caro would in all probability spend a 12 months in South Africa, get a graduate diploma in rocket science, and take up deejaying to raised perceive Grimes. Whereas the Musk bio is a thick e book of tales. Isaacson responds to the comparability by quoting his mentor, novelist and fellow New Orleanian Walker Percy, who advised him that two kinds of individuals emerge from Louisiana—preachers and storytellers. “For heaven’s sake, be a storyteller,” Percy advised him. “The world has too many preachers.”