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Publisher's Summary

New York Times best seller

From Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edmund Morris comes a revelatory new biography of Thomas Alva Edison, the most prolific genius in American history.

Named one of the Best Books of the Year by Time Publishers Weekly Kirkus Reviews

Although Thomas Alva Edison was the most famous American of his time, and remains an international name today, he is mostly remembered only for the gift of universal electric light. His invention of the first practical incandescent lamp 140 years ago so dazzled the world - already reeling from his invention of the phonograph and dozens of other revolutionary devices - that it cast a shadow over his later achievements. In all, this near-deaf genius ("I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was 12 years old") patented 1,093 inventions, not including others, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he left unlicensed for the benefit of medicine.

One of the achievements of this staggering new biography, the first major life of Edison in more than 20 years, is that it portrays the unknown Edison- the philosopher, the futurist, the chemist, the botanist, the wartime defense adviser, the founder of nearly 250 companies - as fully as it deconstructs the Edison of mythological memory. Edmund Morris, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, brings to the task all the interpretive acuity and literary elegance that distinguished his previous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Ludwig van Beethoven. A trained musician, Morris is especially well equipped to recount Edison’s 50-year obsession with recording technology and his pioneering advances in the synchronization of movies and sound. Morris sweeps aside conspiratorial theories positing an enmity between Edison and Nikola Tesla and presents proof of their mutually admiring, if wary, relationship.

Enlightened by seven years of research among the five million pages of original documents preserved in Edison’s huge laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey, and privileged access to family papers still held in trust, Morris is also able to bring his subject to life - the adored yet autocratic and often neglectful husband of two wives and father of six children. If the great man who emerges from it is less a sentimental hero than an overwhelming force of nature, driven onward by compulsive creativity, then Edison is at last getting his biographical due

©2019 Edmund Morris (P)2019 Random House Audio

What listeners say about Edison

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  • Overall
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Editors should stand up to Pulitzer winner

There are certain conventions and norms that one expects when writing a biography. The biography is either going to be written chronologically or (less frequently) thematically. Those are the approaches that people know and are familiar. To do it any other way requires a skilled writer and a supportive editor/publisher. Edmund Morris is a skilled writer. This is the fourth book that I have read by him. The first three (on Roosevelt) all received 5 stars from me and one earned Morris the Pulitzer Prize. Morris chose to break convention and write his biography largely in reverse chronological order. This is either a stroke of genius or idiocy. Unfortunately, in this case it was the later. By tracing his life from the end to the beginning, one misses key aspects of certain event. The backstory that helps you understand the significance of an event is covered either briefly or not at all. Early in the book you feel dropped into a situation---for example, the electrocution of the elephant Topsy. As the book is written in reverse order, you encounter the elephant’s death without understanding the rivalry between AC and DC power. You do not know about the battles with Tesla or Edison’s being forced out of his own company. These events are told in earlier--- I mean later---chapters. As such Morris is forced to spend more time setting the scenario of Topsy’s death. It also means that when you learn about issues that occurred earlier in Edison’s life, you sit there wishing that you had that perspective when you read about the later event. This was a frequent experience. Morris spent more time than necessary covering the back story of events at the end of Edison’s life, that you learn about at the end of the book. When you learn about the antecedent events it is not an ah-ha moment, but rather, “I wish I knew that when I he covered a later period of Edison’s life.” The end of the book often felt as if he was foreshadowing events that he had already covered in great detail---“this was the first time he considered mining” or he was told that if he ever experienced a full solar eclipse that it would last just minutes. By the time I finished the book, I had grown convinced that the editor made a mistake and put the chapters in the wrong order! Yes, Morris (who recently passed away) was one of the greats---but his editors or publishers should have told him no. They should have said, “We know you won a Pulitzer, but this does not work.” His editors and publishers failed him. This book had the promise of being very good, but structurally it failed. The editors and publishers deserve additional scorn for the way they handled the audio book. I think they realized that having the book written in reverse chronology would be difficult to follow, so they kept each chapter in the audio book tied to a decade of his life. This means that each audio chapter is up to 6 hours in length. If you accidentally forward or rewind an audio chapter, it is extremely difficult and time consuming to find you place.

25 people found this helpful

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Non-chronological treatment not good for audio

I got this book for my elderly mother, who generally enjoys biographies. However, this book appears to be organized in reverse chronological order, going through Edison's life backwards by decades. This meant it launched immediately into a wealth of technical detail without any lead-in about what his earlier experiences had been and how they had brought him to that point. In a printed book, the reader could look ahead to find the parts of interest, but this is not possible in an audiobook.

6 people found this helpful

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AWFUL

This may just be the worst biography I have ever read or heard...Morris’ storytelling, writing in reverse order, was painful!

6 people found this helpful

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Listen to the Reviews

Here is a perfect example of the need to listen to reviews. I wish I had. I loved Morris' Teddy Roosevelt Trilogy and wanted to learn more about Edison so this seemed like a great choice. As others point out, for some reason the author decided to write the Bio in reverse chronology starting with his death and moving backwards in time through his life. I don't know why Morris thought this worked and why no editor told him it ruined the story. I was hoping the epilogue would contain Morris' explanation for the approach but there is no explanation and one is badly needed. The book is difficult to follow and jarring at times. For example it jumps from the Stock Market crash at the end of the section on 1920-29 to Edison in 1910 at the start of the 1910-19 section. You know how everything ends, work on inventions, connections with co-workers, family relationships before you know how they began. You find out his mother died from dementia before you learn how important she was in his life which lessens the impact of her death on the reader. He mentions his dissolute son, Thomas, traded on the Edison name without your knowing how he traded on the name or why he was dissolute. Even when he does fill in some background it just means you get it again later in the book. The reader is excellent and Morris is a great story teller, but the format fails him

4 people found this helpful

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Why on Earth is this Backwards??

As I'm wrapping up the book, I am utter baffled how this edit made it through to press. It's a fine book, and it offers a great insight into his life. But there is absolutely zero reason why this needs to be printed in reverse chronological order. I don't mean to only harp on this, but I need to say if you're an audio listener, this book is quite the pain in the ass to actually read. At the end of each chapter you have to manually then change your next chapter to the previous. This sounds, I know like a first world problem, but it makes listening extremely hard as you then have to listen for the chapter to end,..then knowingly stop the playback and reset it to the previous chapter until you reach Chapter 1. Even reading the physical book backwards just feels completely silly. There was no point in this.....However all of that being said, the book is actually really good. It goes into his laboratory, what his family life was like, and as I said, I really feel for Edison. He seemed to have a slightly detached social prowess. And I loved the tenacity. His obsession and belaboring ability to hammer away at a problem is so my style. Less technical finesse and just brute force hammer in screws approach...I can relate. His relationship, as straining as it was he seemed to appreciate. It's an odd rapport he has...his sons all seem to be hanger on's... Constantly asking for money, and loans... They seem to want to make their name on the back of his work. But he doesn't necessarily eschew them completely. I will say his dismissal of his first wife was a bit disheartening to read. I'd like to think of the inventor as a pure gentleman through and through but it does seem he had a bit dismissive take towards women who couldn't keep up with him. All in all it's a good book, but honestly, the format and chronology of the book is a HUGE turn off for me, as it make reading more work than it needed to be.. Great information, horribly presented.

1 person found this helpful

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Basically Awful!

Why is this in reverse chronological order? Isn't the purpose of a biography to show how a great achievement is built on initial success? The narration is good and the content would be more interesting if it was not so disjointed. Would not recommend.

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Well read...tough listen because it's backwards..

Why would any one write a biography that starts with the a person's death and goes backwards in 'chunks'. I can see no good reason to have added the level of confusion to this otherwise interesting story of Thomas Edison. I would guess there are several other biographies that are better and less confusing. Too bad.

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Badly organized - chronologically backwards

Each chapter covers a decade of Edison's life, and covers it well. But organizing them backwards was a mistake. Listeners should fix this by beginning at the ending and ending at the beginning. As Edison knew, and Edmund Morris apparently doesn't, not all experiments work. Otherwise, this is an excellent biography. Morris gives attention to the man as well as his times, and probably pays more attention to Edison's family than Edison himself did. The book's poor organization makes them difficult to get to know, but it is worth the effort.

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Reverse chronology kills it for me.

The reverse chronology... It just killed me. I couldn't finish. I wanted to like it, but the further back I went, the more frustrating it became (for me).

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Lots of Info

Jumps around a little to much in the beginning but I learned a lot looking forward to making a visit to his home and workshop