cover image Edison


Edmund Morris. Random, $38 (800p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9311-0

Inspiration and perspiration prodigiously unite in this sweeping biography of one of America’s greatest inventors. Pulitzer-winning biographer Morris (Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan) tells Thomas Alva Edison’s story backward, opening with the creator of the first long-lasting light bulb, the phonograph, and other electromechanical marvels in lionized, imperious old age and presenting each decade of his life in reverse order, back to his boyhood spells of intense, isolated concentration. The ordering is something of a gimmick—the book reads nicely back to front—but along the way Morris vividly fleshes out Edison’s extraordinary intellect and industry as he devoured stacks of scientific treatises, incessantly brainstormed ideas with complex, elegant diagrams, and spent a lifetime of 18-hour days perfecting his designs in the laboratory, where he ate and slept on the floor. (His paternal absenteeism, Morris notes, got a tragicomic comeuppance from two resentful wastrel sons who exploited his name to perpetrate frauds.) Writing in amusing, literate prose that’s briskly paced despite a mountain of fascinating detail, Morris sets Edison’s achievements against a colorful portrait of his splendid eccentricity—mostly deaf, he was given to biting phonographs and pianos to divine their acoustics—whose visionary obsessions drove his businesses near to bankruptcy. The result is an engrossing study of a larger-than-life figure who embodied a heroic age of technology. Photos. [em](Oct.) [/em]