It doesn’t happen often but when it does, I do a review on great books that I read and one of the best that I’ve read in a while is Edison by Edmund Morris. Sadly, Edmund Morris died in the spring of 2019, just ahead of the publication of one of his great biographies of people who were above and beyond the norm. He is known for his trilogy biography on Teddy Roosevelt which I have adored over the years, and his very controversial book on Ronald Reagan called Dutch. So, it goes without saying that I was looking forward to reading his latest Edison biography with the kind of eagerness that someone might look forward to a new Star Wars movie or a major sporting event. It was something I couldn’t wait to read, and I had an open window to handle the 700 plus page book just after New Years of 2020, and it didn’t disappoint. I read the book a few times just to make sure it was as excellent as I thought it was. Edison, the book, is one of those rare treats where the contents of a great person in Thomas A. Edison matched the wit and wisdom of one of the world’s greatest biographers in carving out an excellent narrative that was bizarrely articulate. I have always loved Edison, but this biography solved a riddle for me that I had been asking about the man all of my life and to unlock it, Morris told the story in reverse.
The book starts with the death of Thomas Edison in 1931 and it actually ends with a baby Edison contemplating space and matter in his first 9 months of life. The purpose of telling the story in reverse which has caused much consternation among critics and the reading public in general was to reveal why Edison was such a passionate inventor working his 20-hour days and sleeping on his work bench most of his life. He was like most people do throughout their lives trying to get back to those wonders of childhood and for him, he never stopped thinking like a child, always inventing and behaving as if answering the questions hidden by nature were the most rewarding thing in the world to do. Morris had to tell the answer of how Edison became who he was by putting the beginning literally at the end so that everything that had been studied throughout Edison’s long life and many thousands of inventions including the lightbulb, the phonograph and extended batteries for use in submarines, were climaxed by a point in his past that could only be articulated in reviewing a life in reverse, the way a dying person may have their life flash before their eyes. Reviewing history in this way took an almost God-like perspective in the context of universal history that was significant and enchanting.
For me it answered a question I have long suspected, and this is common in great thinkers such as Edison, Walt Disney, even great minds of today like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, a little love from a good mother and some independent input from parents in the early phases of a life where other social elements of standardization are removed from a child’s mind, can ignite in a human being great potential. In the case of Edison, he wasn’t made a genius inventor by any school or upper level academic institution which is a point I make often about society in general, but by a mother who worked closely with him to ignite a spectacular man who literally had never been taught to think in a limited fashion. The reason the childhood of Edison was kept to the end of the book was because that was the key to the making of the man to begin with—where he was in his lifetime the most popular man in the world at his death where every world power took a moment to honor him for all that he had done to advance mankind to a new level.
I was even surprised at how much academia was against Thomas Edison through his early years, until he simply outworked his critics and invented so many new things that nobody could even hope to compete with him. I was also surprised to learn that the famous rivalry with Tesla was not so much true but was more a product of a media that wanted to chronical some sort of horse race to sell newspapers. It was remarkably like the way we call Fake News today in covering the Trump administration. Edison did not have much formal schooling, even through grade school, so he had never learned what couldn’t be done, which is a continued plague among most of our fellow human beings. Edison was remarkable because he had never learned not to be.
Even though Edmund Morris the writer was considered, and still is even in his death, one of the great academics of our times by way of writers, his books have this common theme that he has managed to uncover about people of exceptional ability, such as Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison. When reading Dutch, which Morris was invited into the White House to study Reagan for that book, you can see through his writing that Morris was almost disappointed in the man because he was not Teddy Roosevelt, but simply an actor who had learned to take on the character of America and play it in the 1980s to unite the country to defeat communism and unleash the power of our capitalist economy. The man himself was not one of these special people and Morris had to invent a narrative character controversially to give himself emotional distance to the subject to get through the project. That certainly wasn’t the case with Edison. It was obvious that after spending thousands of hours studying Edison to even write this book, that Morris loved the man, and for good reason. After finishing that book, I did too.
I was at a bookstore in Disney World holding this book in my hand thinking of buying it, but we were on vacation and I didn’t have the time for it then, so I held off a few weeks longer. But I was thinking of Edison while at Disney Springs where they have a restaurant there dedicated to Thomas Edison that I was very enchanted with. I knew of Edison all the usual things, that he was in fact the founder of General Electric, and that he had done great things for the war efforts. But I didn’t know he was such a good person, not so much with his wives and his kids, but as an individual who really had just never grown up. Even though he was practically deaf and lacked a lot of compassion for others the way that people measure it, he was authentic and did not waste his time looking in the rear-view mirror at anybody. I appreciated that restaurant while visiting Disney Springs, but I think now I have a lot more reverence for it, and deservedly so. Thomas Edison was a great man, not necessarily because of any other reason but because his mother taught him the love of life and the boundless rewards that can come from a thinking mind, and thus, we are all the better for it. Just imagine if our society produced hundreds of Thomas Edison’s every year instead of every other century.