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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman – a review

A taster:

One minute before the end of the world, everyone gathers on the grounds of the Kunstmuseum. Men, women, and children for a giant circle and hold hands. No one moves. No one speaks. It is so absolutely quiet that each person can hear the heart-beat of the person to his right or his left. This is the last minute of the world. In the absolute silence a purple gentian in the garden catches the light on the underside of its blossom, glows for a moment, then dissolves among the other flowers. Behind the museum, the needles leaves of a larch gently shudder as a breeze moves through the tree. Farther back, through the forest, the Aare reflects sunlight, bends the light with each ripple on its skin. To the east, the tower of St. Vincent’s rises into sky, red and fragile, its stonework as delicate as veins of a leaf. And higher up, the Alps, snow-tipped, blending white and purple, large and silent. A cloud floats in the sky. A sparrow flutters. No one speaks.

In the space of the week or so that I’ve spent with this little book it has become a firm friend. Lightman is a teacher of physics and writing at MIT and Einstein’s Dreams is his first work of fiction. Ostensibly, technically a novel, it has little plot and concerns itself with the dreams about time Einstein may have had throughout 1905 when he was working as a patent clerk in Berne and formulating , privately, a theory of relativity.

The dreams, thirty of them, are about the possible or impossible shapes of time. We are offered worlds in which time is shifted or altered, skewed in one way or another, perhaps,in some of these vignettes aligning itself more readily with our experience.

We are led through worlds with or without timepieces, where time is a function of circularity, where it is possible to shift from the present to the past, or where time actually flows backwards rather than forwards. We meet characters who only live for one day and others who endure eternity and we share their experiences, their inner responses to the bizarre worlds which they inhabit.

We visit a place where time is frozen; another where time slows with altitude; and yet another where you can gain time by moving faster.

But, as you will have gathered from the extract printed above, Lightman doesn’t just have imagination and ideas. He is also a wordsmith and his book reads and sounds like the finest prose.

I don’t grade these reviews with stars, and books like this one remind me exactly why that is. I’d need a lot more than five stars to grade Einstein’s Dreams. Just go out and get a copy.

3 Responses to “Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman – a review”

  1. Thomas says:

    Thank you for the review. I read this book a few weeks ago and I was going to bring it home for Christmas. But you seem to have all angles covered. The part I liked most about the book was the theory about life being like a river. That sometimes it goes fast and sometimes slow. At the edge of the stream there will sometimes be eddies where the water doubles back on itself and joins the flow of life somewhere in the past.

    jb says: It’s beautifully written. I’ve lived with the suspicion that time is circular for many years. The book made me remember how very limited we are in our interpretations of the world and the poverty as well as the blessing of our imaginations.

  2. Paul says:

    Wish I’d read this piece sooner, or perhaps I did. Have checked house, but can’t find a copy of the book, unless I’ve already lent it to someone. Then again I can’t remember reading it, but I suppose I might have years ago. I’ll just have to move it to the top of the list and read it again or for the first time?

    Have an enjoyable Xmas John.

  3. Aicha says:

    I don’t have a copy of this though I dearly wish I did.

    I did read snippets of this in a local bookstore and was so thrilled, excited, so at peace and left wondering. Could this be real? Is time really a circle and a mirror at the same time? Are all choices at all points of time really carried out in different world?

    It is an extravagant but quite wonderous thing, the idea presented in this book.

    I am just sorry that the book is priced expensively for a small copy but I am saving up for it and I can’t wait until I can buy.