My favorite reading is about people. I love biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. So I had a lightbulb moment when I saw that Edmund Morris’s new biography of Thomas Edison had been released.
Having read Morris’s trilogy of Teddy Roosevelt biographies, I’m an admirer of the author’s work. (Morris died in 2019.)
When I want to read a new book, I must decide whether to buy it or wait and save a few valuable retirement dollars by checking it out at the library. My thinking about the Edison book was that I should buy it because it would be so popular that the library wait-list would be too long.
But the luck of the Irish was with me. On one of my frequent visits to the Haywood County library, “Edison” had just been placed in the new arrivals section. It jumped right off the shelf and into my hands.
In 2008, a movie called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was released. In the movie, Benjamin Button ages in reverse. He’s born an 84-year-old man and dies an infant.
Well, Edmund Morris has written a Benjamin Buttony book about Thomas Edison. He tells the story backwards. The book begins with Edison as an old man and ends with him as a young man. And just like Benjamin Button, he lives 84 years.
We learn that Edison had a second wife before we find out what happened to his first. Early in the book, the inventor is deaf in one ear and almost deaf in the other. We only find out near the end of the book that Edison had dealt with hearing loss since childhood.
Despite the reverse chronology of “Edison,” I found it a hard book to put down. The author enlightens us (pun intended) about the genius of Edison but also lets us peep through the windows of his personal life.
Edison often found it difficult to show affection. In one of the most disturbing passages in the book, Edison shows almost total indifference when a boyhood friend drowns while they’re swimming together.
Conversely, when Edison was a teenager, he rescued a young boy from railroad tracks before an oncoming train crushed him.
Another personal tidbit: Edison had a friend from boyhood named Ezra Gilliland who was also his business partner for many years. They were so close they purchased land together in Fort Myers, Florida, and built homes next door to each other.
But, as often happens with business partners, they had a falling out and for 14 years, until Gilliland’s death, Edison refused to visit his winter home because Gilliland would be there.
Each year for a decade, Edison, auto magnate Henry Ford, tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs — calling themselves the Vagabonds —took auto “camping” trips to various parts of the country.
In “Edison,” there’s a passing reference to one of their trips having as its destination the Great Smoky Mountains.
Interested to know where in the Smokies the quartet traveled, I consulted Jeff Guinn’s book, “The Vagabonds,” and learned that during their 1918 trip, they came through northeast Tennessee, stopping to camp on a farm outside Jonesborough, eating lunch in Newport, then crossing the mountains into Hot Springs, where they visited the camp that interned 2,200 German nationals during World War I.
When they reached Asheville, it was decided they needed to bathe and shave, so they abandoned the outdoors for an overnight stay at the Grove Park Inn.
Personal insights like those in “Edison” give us some amazing views of America’s greatest inventor. Some reviewers are calling it the most fascinating book ever written about Thomas Alva Edison. I agree, but I have a suggestion: Read it backwards.