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 someplace 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 singular and enviable shift in profession focus for Isaacson, whose most important 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 ebook tour for what may be his greatest ebook but. It’s a forest-clearing doorstop of prose based mostly on two years spent observing the person who is maybe the world’s most formidable pursuer of the longer term—one whose periodically wretched persona 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 challenge as a achieved 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 achieved 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 employees, and swung a wrecking ball at Twitter’s tradition. Members of the family, ex-wives, and parenting companions shared their views, together with pissed off 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 ebook is that Musk and his sometimes-partner Grimes have a hitherto unannounced third little one. Grimes, you held this again from me!)
I ask Isaacson if he was ready for Musk experiencing what appeared like a meltdown through the real-time analysis on the ebook. Actually, when the challenge started there was no strategy to know Musk would interact in a trainwreck takeover of Twitter, alienating customers and advertisers and, extra lately, seeming accountable all of it 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 strategy within the ebook 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 in the end 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, 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 accustomed to the time period, it refers back to the mysterious phrase uttered on the deathbed of the central determine in Orson Welles’ traditional film Citizen Kane. Spoiler alert: We be taught 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 turned the meanest canine of all.
“You strive to determine what drives an individual,” says Isaacson. “And for me or any biographer, it usually goes again to childhood. Numerous 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 dad and mom. 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. Buddies, kinfolk, and Isaacson himself always 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 serious Musk’s conduct will get, the extra the ebook appears to argue that the misbehavior of the richest particular person on the planet is just a product of the wrongs achieved to him when he was in brief pants. Inevitably, this winds up making Isaacson appear like a protection lawyer asking for mercy for his consumer 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 through which 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 strategy and that of, say, Robert Caro, the obsessive completist who wrote the traditional bio of New York’s imperious masterbuilder Robert Moses and is at present combating quantity 5 of his Lyndon Johnson challenge. If Caro had 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 ebook of tales. Isaacson responds to the comparability by quoting his mentor, novelist and fellow New Orleanian Walker Percy, who instructed him that two varieties of individuals emerge from Louisiana—preachers and storytellers. “For heaven’s sake, be a storyteller,” Percy instructed him. “The world has too many preachers.”