I started keeping a list of books I read back in January 1996, over twenty-five years ago. As of today, there are 1,063 books on the list. I have a simple rule for how a book gets on the list: I have to finish it. If I re-read a book, which I occasionally do, it gets on the list a second (or third) time with a new number. I do re-read books sometimes, although not as often as I used to. Of the 1,063 book on the list, there are about 888 unique titles, meaning that over the course of 25 years, 175 of those 1,063 books were re-reads.
One book I had never re-read was the book that started it all, book #1 on the list, From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov. Until now, that is. On Sunday I finished a book and had a small gap to fill on Monday. I didn’t want to start a lengthy book because today, the new Stephen King book, Later comes out and I’m eager to read it. So I needed something relatively short, and as I had been reading collections of essays, I figured I’d stick with the theme. I’d go back to the beginning and re-read that first book on the list.
More than 25 years, and 1,062 books intervened between the two readings, but it was a pleasure to read. From Earth to Heaven is a collection of 17 of Isaac Asimov’s science essays that used to appear monthly in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction–a series that continued for over thirty years and spanned 399 essays. These essays were collected in books in batches of 17. I eventually read all of them, and when I wrote, more than 10 years ago, that almost everything I learned about science I learned from Isaac Asimov, it was to these essays that I was specifically referring.
One of the nice things about these collections is that they are eclectic. You jump from one area of science to another. They are colloquial in tone, amusing, and educational. They also fill in many of the historical gaps that there just isn’t time for in high school and college science classes.
This particular collection covers essays that appeared February 1965 and June 1966. You can imagine, then, that some of the science was dated, but even this has its useful qualities. It is a great example of how science works, that it is progressive, builds upon itself, and is self-correcting: when new information comes to light, it is incorporated into the body of knowledge. Some of these essays refer to neutrinos and gravity waves, neither of which had been detected at the time the essays were written. Still, they provide the historical context for the subsequent discoveries.
The last time I’d read Asimov’s nonfiction was back in the spring of 2005, so I was a bit nervous approaching it more than 15 years later. Would his style hold up to what I remembered, or would it seem dated compared to more contemporary writers of science. Almost at once, my fears were allayed. Asimov’s colloquial style in these essays were just as how I remembered them, as if he was sitting across a restaurant table from me, talking directly to me about a variety of scientific topics.
It didn’t take me long to finish the book, but it was a lot of fun to read, and I’m glad I decided to go back to that book. It reminded me how much I enjoyed those essay collections. They are all still there on my shelves, read for the re-read whensoever the desire take me. That is a comforting feeling.