THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: On January 2, 1920, Isaac Asimov was born in Petrovichi, Russia.

At age three, Asimov moved with his family to the U. S., settling in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, where his parents owned a neighborhood convenience store. He was a gifted child, although that term had not yet been invented. At age five, he could almost always be found hanging around the magazine racks at his family’s store, most often devouring the most recent installments of science-fiction magazines.

After graduating from high school at age fifteen, he was accepted at Columbia University, where he formally majored in chemistry while beginning to write and publish his own science-fiction stories. By the time he was awarded his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1948, the 28-year-old Asimov was already being hailed as one of America’s most talented science fiction writers (many decades later, his 1941 story “Nightfall” was chosen by a group of his peers as the best sci-fi story ever written).

In addition to his career as a distinguished biochemist and science-fiction writer, Asimov has one other claim to fame: he is one the most prolific writers in history. He wrote nearly 500 books on a breathtaking array of subjects: college textbooks, mystery novels, a book on Shakespeare, guides to both the Old and the New Testament, and books on Greek mythology, space travel, history, mathematics, and astronomy (someone once said that he contributed books to nine of the ten categories of the Dewey Decimal system). The writer Harlan Ellison once quipped about Asimov:

“He had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of his life.”

Asimov died at age 72 on April 6, 1992. While the official cause of death was heart and kidney failure, it wasn’t until a decade later that his widow and other family members revealed that his heart and liver problems were the result of an HIV infection contracted from a blood transfusion during a 1988 triple bypass surgery.

Asimov is one of my literary heroes, and I never tire of reflecting on his trenchant observations on so many different topics. Here are a dozen of my favorites:

“Happiness is doing it rotten your own way.”

“I’m not a speed reader. I’m a speed understander.”

“The day you stop learning is the day you begin decaying.”

“I write for the same reason I breathe —
because if I didn’t I would die.”

“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live,
I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”

“Life is a journey but don’t worry,
you’ll find a parking spot at the end.”

“A poor idea well written is more likely to be accepted
than a good idea poorly written.”

“To insult someone we call him ‘bestial.’ For deliberate cruelty
and nature, ‘human’ might be the greater insult.”

“I don’t believe in personal immortality; the only way I expect
to have some version of such a thing is through my books.”

“There is no belief, however foolish, that will not
gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death.”

“It has always been my ambition to die in harness with my head face
down on a keyboard and my nose caught between two of the keys.”

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always
has been . . . nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that
‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

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