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Reading pulp fiction helped Isaac Asimov produce over 500 books.


Drake Lolley

May 4, 2020

Young Isaac Asimov was obsessed with words.

As a preschooler in 1920s New York, his immigrant parents could not read English. He asked older kids on the block to teach him the alphabet and the sound of each letter. He wandered around, sounding out words on signs and everywhere else. He soon taught himself to read - and then he ran into a problem.

Once I could read, and as my ability to read improved rapidly, there turned out to be a serious problem. I had nothing to read. My schoolbooks lasted me just a few days. I finished every one of them in the course of the first week of the term and thereafter was educated for that half year. The teacher had very little to tell me. [...]

What to do? My father got me a library card and, periodically, my mother would take me to the library. [...] My father assumed that any book that was in a public library was suitable reading and so he made no attempt to supervise the books I took out. And I, without guidance, sampled everything.

I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov, pg. 23-24

And he did sample everything - from several libraries. Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Dickens - and eventually, fiction led to nonfiction. Asimov would later credit this eclectic reading with providing the foundation for his prolific writing career. However, he was also influenced by 'literature' of a rather different sort.

The year was 1929 - during the depths of the great depression - and nine-year-old Isaac Asimov was stuck working in his father's candy store. Nineteen hours a day, from 6 A.M. to 1 A.M., the store was nearly always open - weekends and holidays included. But Isaac knew better than to complain; their family got by, which is more than could be said for many during the depression. How did the long hours and hard work affect him? Isaac recalls,

On the adverse side of the ledger, they cut down my free time to virtually nothing. They wiped out any hopes of a social life even during my teenage years, and in the time when I might have discovered women, I could only do so from afar. [...] Yet I didn't resent it.

I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov, pg. 37

Why didn't he resent it? This was before the days of television, and people searching for what Asimov called "trash food for the mind" turned to fictional stories in magazines. High-class magazines - referred to as "slick magazines" - were printed on quality paper with smooth, neatly-trimmed edges. By contrast, cheaper publications were printed on rough paper, and were called "pulps". The candy store carried pulps.

From superheroes to westerns, from sports to science fiction, each magazine had a specialty. Isaac's father considered them 'trash' and preferred that his son only read 'proper' books. But he eventually relented, and Isaac would read each one carefully and place it back on the stands, seemingly untouched and ready for purchase.

These magazines influenced his writing and inspired the start of his career - he would go on to sell stories to some of the same magazines he enjoyed as a child.

More importantly, however, reading pulp fiction made the long hours of work pleasant, and this association instilled a strong work ethic that would later enable his prodigious writing output.

I have kept the candy-store hours all my life. I wake at five in the morning. I get to work as early as I can. I work as long as I can. I do this every day in the week, including holidays. I don't take vacations voluntarily and I try to do my work even when I'm on vacation. (And even when I'm in the hospital.) [...]

I can only say that there were certain advantages offered by the candy store that had nothing to do with mere survival, but, rather, with overflowing happiness, and that this was so associated with the long hours as to make them sweet to me and to fix them upon me for all my life.

I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov, pg. 38

Asimov went on to write or edit over 500 books, becoming one of the best known science fiction writers of his time.

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear refers to this type of association as "Temptation Bundling." He explains,

Temptation bundling is one way to apply a psychology theory known as Premack's Principle. Named after the work of professor David Premack, the principle states that "more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors." In other words, even if you don't really want to process overdue work emails, you'll become conditioned to do it if it means you get to do something you really want to do along the way.

Atomic Habits by James Clear, pg. 109

By combining the pleasure of the pulp magazines with the work of the candy store, Asimov was conditioning himself to put in the long hours needed to produce his writing projects. You can use temptation bundling too - just choose a habit that you would like to make part of your identity, and then find something you already enjoy to associate with it. Who knows - you may even become the next Isaac Asimov!

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