I meet with Walter Isaacson in a small convention room within the workplaces of ebook writer Simon & Schuster. The partitions are festooned with framed covers, together with after all Isaacson’s mega-bestseller Steve Jobs. I’m certain some place else 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 novel and enviable shift in profession focus for Isaacson, whose most important gig for years has been as a prime editor and administrator for Time Journal, the Aspen Institute, and CNN. Now I’m placing myself amongst his numerous interlocutors forward of an epic ebook tour for what is likely to be his greatest ebook but. It’s a forest-clearing doorstop of prose based mostly on two years spent observing the person who is probably the world’s most formidable pursuer of the longer term—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 each 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 ebook mission as a accomplished deal minutes after a casual 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 accomplished 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 a whole lot of hours actually inside arm’s attain of his topic, observing Musk as he destroyed launch pads, humiliated Tesla workers, 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 beginning to his twins and the opposite serving to a surrogate ship one other fruit of his loins. (Among the many many surprises within the ebook is that Musk and his sometimes-partner Grimes have a hitherto unannounced third baby. Grimes, you held this back 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 ebook. Definitely, when the mission started there was no technique to know Musk would have interaction in a trainwreck takeover of Twitter, alienating customers and advertisers and, extra just lately, seeming to blame it all on the Jews, even suing the Anti-Defamation League for noticing an explosion of anti-Semitism on the platform now referred to 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 method within the ebook is to current his analysis in 95 vignette-like chapters, every one 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 (a couple of of whom have truly 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, onerous work, and good timing. However Isaacson at all times appears to uncover a darkness most frequently rooted in childhood—a rosebud. In case you’re not conversant in the time period, it refers back to the mysterious phrase uttered on the deathbed of the central determine in Orson Welles’ classic movie Citizen Kane. Spoiler alert: We study within the final scene that it’s the model identify 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 whole lot 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 beginning 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. Pals, family, and Isaacson himself continually remind us of Musk’s battle to not turn out to be just like the vicious anti-Semite, grifter, and step-daughter-impregnator Errol Musk. (It’s not going properly on some fronts.) The Elon Musk that Isaacson presents to us is a Jekyll and Hyde character who veers between participating visionary and bullying authoritarian with a penchant for fart jokes. Within the scheme of Isaacson’s narrative, nevertheless, the more severe Musk’s conduct will get, the extra the ebook appears to argue that the misbehavior of the richest individual on the earth is just a product of the wrongs accomplished to him when he was in brief pants. Inevitably, this winds up making Isaacson appear 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 truly 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 situations wherein Musk went into “demon mode.” Others may object that previous “demons” don’t decide somebody’s present conduct—it’s the precise one who commits the devilry.
I point out to Isaacson the distinction between his biographical method and that of, say, Robert Caro, the obsessive completist who wrote the classic bio of New York’s imperious masterbuilder Robert Moses and is at present fighting quantity 5 of his Lyndon Johnson mission. 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 higher perceive Grimes. Whereas the Musk bio is a thick ebook of tales. Isaacson responds to the comparability by quoting his mentor, novelist and fellow New Orleanian Walker Percy, who instructed him that two sorts of individuals emerge from Louisiana—preachers and storytellers. “For heaven’s sake, be a storyteller,” Percy instructed him. “The world has too many preachers.”