[Book Review] It’s Been a Good Life

I started my reading for this year with the Autobiography of my favorite author – Isaac Asimov.

Pretty much all the books of Asimov that I have read so far are addictive page-turners and this one is no exception. I read this one in about 4 days, but could have finished it in just 2 days, if I was not busy with other things 😉

Anyways, as I promised at the beginning of the year, I will try to write reviews for most of the books that I read and here is my review of the first book that I read this year – It’s Been a Good Life by Isaac Asimov.

Not really an Autobiography


This book is technically not an Autobiography, but a one-volume condensation of his three autobiographies with annotations by his wife. In addition to it, this book also has the following

  • “The Last Question” – Asimov’s favorite short story
  • His 400th essay on science, with lot of anecdotes (by his wife)
  • A shocking afterword by his wife (more on it later in the review)

A Rationalist

Apart from the reason that he is a prolific writer, the other reason why I like Isaac Asimov is because he is a rationalist. He starts off the book with following quote in a typical Asimov fashion. Funny, but Honest.

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.

He believed in reason and was not interested in labeling or identifying himself with a group, religion or a country.

I refuse to consider myself to be anything more sharply defined than “human being”

When talking about religion, he says:

Have I told you that I prefer “rationalism” to “atheism”? The word “atheist,” meaning “no God,” is negative and defeatist. It says what you don’t believe and puts you in an eternal position of defense. “Rationalism” on the other hand states what you DO believe; that is, that which can be understood in the light of reason. The question of God and other mystical objects-of-faith are outside reason and therefore play no part in rationalism and you don’t have to waste your time in either attacking or defending that which you rule out of your philosophy altogether.

A prolific writer

Asimov was one of the prolific writers of all times and has written or edited more than 500 books.

He talks about how he got into writing science fiction and the background behind writing most of his science fiction short stories and novels. It’s really existing to read about the background and what went through the author’s mind when writing a particular short story or novel that you enjoyed a lot. It was this feeling that I really liked about this book.

In addition to being a prolific writer he was also a life-long learner and believed in continuous learning.

To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to commit a form of suicide; in the long run, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life.

He also talks about how he enjoyed writing about what he learned in such a way that other people can understand and learn from it. Apart from his science fiction works he has written lot of textbooks and guides to a wide range of topics from bible to Shakespeare to different fields of science like Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Maths etc.

Unfortunately most of these books are out of print today 🙁

His Death

Towards the end of the book he talks (often jokes) about his illness and how it is taking a troll on him and affecting his ability to write. One of the last books that he wrote at this time when he was ill was “Forward the Foundation”, where he talks about the last few days of his famous character Hari Seldon. When I read “Forward the Foundation” last year (unaware about it being the one of last books of Asimov), I sensed a slightly feeling of sadness in the way he described the last few days of Hari Seldon, but now I realized that he was in fact writing from his own experience and I was overcome with grief 🙁

Finally he finished the book with the following quote.

My turn will come too, eventually, but I have had a good life and I have accomplished all I wanted to, and more than I had a right to expect I would. So I am ready. But not too ready … I shall hope.

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that there was a “shocking afterword” by his wife. It was shocking because in the afterword his wife, Janet reveals that the myocardial and renal complications that he had towards the end of his life were the result of an infection by HIV, which he had contracted from a blood transfusion received during his bypass operation a decade ago. They convinced Asimov not to go public with the news because of the anti-AIDS prejudice that was prevalent at that time. Instead, his wife and daughter waited for ten years and when most of the doctors who attended Asimov have passed away they made it public.

Even though this book ends with a shocking revelation about his illness, this volume is clearly intended as a celebration – as the title suggests – of a wonderful, creative life and above all a wonderful human being. Issac Asimov – You will always be missed.

My Rating

Absolute 5 out of 5. I am a die-hard fan of Asimov so this may be a little biased but even if you don’t enjoy his other works I am pretty sure you would like this book.

The only negative about this book for me is that it was heavily annotated by his wife with lot of comments and background from her. This sometimes breaks the flow and you don’t get to enjoy Asimov’s writing style to the full. To compensate for it (and also to hear the full version of the story) I am planning to read the following books, which were the original autobiographies written by Asimov himself from which this book is based on.

  • In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920–1954
  • In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954–1978
  • I. Asimov: A Memoir

The only problem is that all the above books are out of print and even the kindle versions are not available. The only way to buy them is from second-hand book shops and that too only from US, since I don’t think they were ever published in India. Something I have to do next time when I visit US.

My next book

One of my resolutions for this year is to read books from different genre. Now that I have read an Autobiography, I am going to read a science book – A brief history of Time by Stephen Hawking next. Would be an interesting read I guess 🙂

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