Elon Musk has not peaked yet. And that is just one of the many challenges Walter Isaacson had to deal with while writing the biography of one of the most-talked-about people on earth. Nevertheless, Isaacson makes an earnest effort to understand the man.
He has done thorough reporting, talking to almost everyone who mattered in Musk’s life. The chapters on his childhood give a fair idea about how the man became what he is. There are juicy details of Musk’s intriguing domestic life―some known, some not so much.
But that is not the point of this book. It is about a man who wants to save mankind. Unlike most people who want to do the same, Musk has a plan. He wants to make humans multiplanetary. And he is working on it. While doing so, he also reinvented the electric car, made some fantastic rockets, became the richest person in the world, and bought Twitter and renamed it.
Isaacson tries to make sense of―with some success―how a socially awkward person with little empathy took up the lofty goal of saving humanity. Musk’s tough childhood, with an abusive father and an overworked mother, and his love for his children―“He cried like a wolf”and refused to go back home for three weeks when his firstborn, Nevada, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome―shed some light on this dual personality.
Biographers often fall into the trap of getting too close to their subjects. To be fair, Isaacson does try to take a critical look at Musk, like the take on the folly of buying Twitter. “He thought of it as a technology company, when in fact it was an advertising medium based on human emotions and relationships,” he writes. But often it is Musk who does most of the talking, despite the large number of citations.
Also, the Musk today is not the same person whom Isaacson decided to make the subject of his next biography in 2021―he is a lot more polarising now. However, Isaacson had the fortune of getting the opportunity to follow Musk during the most volatile two years of his life. He has taken full advantage of it, like the original reporting on the inside story of the technical glitches that plagued Twitter in 2022.
Isaacson’s narrative in this book is not as ‘neutral’ as his well-received biography of Steve Jobs. While he does not make any effort to justify Musk’s behavioural issues, he strongly suggests that they might have played a role in his “epic feats”.
By Walter Isaacson
Published by Simon & Schuster
Price Rs1,499; pages 688