On top of writing acclaimed biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson has written pieces for seemingly every notable publication in America. This admirable body of work will be elevated even further by Isaacson’s first-rate collection, American Sketches, which offers brief but incisive looks at some of the key figures in recent history.
The book’s beauty is that the entries (ranging from reviews to profiles to eulogies) serve as a kind of late 20th- to early 21st-century history book. Isaacson has shaken hands with history over the last 25 years, whether it was the United States making peace with the Soviet Union, the advances of the digital revolution or the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina on his native New Orleans. As a man steeped in American history and the news industry—he was also the CEO of CNN—Isaacson shares his keen observations on the Clintons, Colin Powell and George W. Bush.
With sections devoted to Franklin and Einstein, Isaacson also reveals how the past can inspire the future. He connects Franklin to President Barack Obama by explaining, “I hoped that more politicians would emerge who were sage and sensible, and I came to believe that Obama was the most like Franklin of all our national politicians.” And in his essay “A New Way to View Science,” Isaacson stresses that though Einstein might be associated with hard-to-grasp ideas, people shouldn’t plead ignorance on science.
Ever the biographer, Isaacson delves into icons, discovering what exactly Madeleine Albright did as secretary of state; using a Q&A with Woody Allen to reveal that the famed director eschewed his nerdy onscreen persona when ditching longtime companion Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter; and characterizing George Plimpton as having chosen casualness over literary greatness.
Budding writers should take special note: Isaacson is far from jaded, always curious and open to discovery. It is fitting, then, that while helping out in New Orleans he found his next biography subject: fellow Big Easy native Louis Armstrong. It turns out journalism does have a future, though it might be in unlikely places.
Pete Croatto is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.