I am a sucker for recommended books that my friends literally shove into my hands, and if weren’t for one of those moments, I may never have read this lovely “novel” Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. I use the word “novel” lightly, because it’s so short I read the whole book on a single lunch break. Jim Dale could probably narrate the whole audio book in a single breath. Ernest Hemingway’s longer paragraphs could make ED look like flash fiction. Despite its shortcomings (GET IT?!), Lightman’s baby novel is packed with meaty goodness and impressive imagery.
Einstein’s Dream follows a young German physicist and his fantastical, radical theories of time and relativity. This fictitious rendition of Einstein is a shadow of his real life self. His personality is seen in snippets. The book itself is simply a series of analogies for time, as Einstein dreams night after night of different worlds in which time exists in entirely unique ways. Each chapter explores a new world and a new metaphor: a world where time stands still in the center of town, growing faster the farther away you venture; a world where people are stuck reliving a single moment in their pasts, neglecting their present; a world where people age in reverse. Lightman presents the reader with a multitude of nifty ideas that are all true in some way. Time, after all, is relative.
In one world, time doesn’t exist at all. Only a series of images exist. Image after image marches past, and it’s easy to imagine this chapter being Lightman’s favorite. It shows off his writerly abilities to capture life and movement and story in a single, static snapshot:
“The purple petals of an iris, held by a young woman. A room of four walls, two windows, two beds, a table, a lamp, two people with red faces, tears. The first kiss. Planets caught in space, oceans, silence. A bead of water on the window. A coiled rope. A yellow brush.”
This is the photo montage world set to Phil Collins music,and who wouldn’t love that?
Lightman is a painter. Sometimes he uses broad strokes, painting vast landscapes. Sometimes he’s a pointillist. He constructs equally vast images but with the smallest details, a series of simple scenes, a bead of water on the window. In either case, the author knows how to be artful with his words, and his understanding of the physical world helps deepen and strengthen his writing. ED may not be the most compelling of novels, and who knows how much longer it will stand up to the test of time, but it is beautiful little book that I’m glad to have read.
Read this book if … you need something to do during a single lunch break. ED is a punchy, image-laden, plotless chunk of fun, and you will “hmmm” and “huh” your way thoughtfully through the whole book and end up staring into space thinking deep thoughts.
Don’t read this book if … you need something a little more tactile to hold onto in a book–like a plot or character development, those sorts of things. ED wasn’t written to tell a story. It was written to paint a still life, and as pretty as that sounds, it won’t suit everyone.
This book is like … Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist for its fuzzy, feel-good lyricism; Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, for its trippy treatment of time and reality; or Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities for a format that separates places with chapter breaks, giving each town or world its own encapsulated space.