I'll write as I please and let the critics do the analyzing.
— Asimov, 1973
By the time he died in 1992, Isaac Asimov had penned or edited over 500 books and hundreds of short stories over the course of his 72 years; a staggeringly prolific career. A giant amongst the hard science fiction genre, he was considered one of the “Big Three” along with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. He not only won every science fiction award available he created canonical characters and stories. He coined the term “robotics” and was responsible for creating the Three Laws of Robotics.
Born in the rural village of Petrovichi, Russia in 1920, Asimov’s family immigrated to Brooklyn aboard the RMS Baltic when he was three years old. The Asimovs lived at numerous addresses in Brooklyn and Judah, his father, owned a series of candy shops. It is in these candy shops that the soon to be great writer began reading the stock of science fiction pulps. In fact, so much emphasis is placed on the power of those pulps in shaping Asimov’s writing it shows up in nearly every obituary.
But a bit of digging shows that Isaac’s story is more nuanced then that, as one would expect from such a prolific writer. The door may have been opened by those pulp stories but the room it led to, the one in which Asimov learned the art of storytelling, was the Brooklyn Public Library.
The Asimovs lived at several addresses during Isaac’s young life. When they arrived in 1923 they lived at 425 Van Sicklen Avenue in East New York. Two years later they lived at 424 Miller Avenue. The next year the directory has them listed at 750 Sutter Avenue which was the site of first of many candy stores.
In 1928 they moved to 651 Essex Street at the corner of New Lots Avenue. It was here that Judah Asimov opened his second candy store, and where young Isaac spent a lot of his time. According to his memoir, I, ASIMOV the candy store carried pulp magazines which his father refused to let him read. Judah described the pulps as “trash.” When Isaac pointed out that the other kids got to read it, he said “So they can get trashy brains and their fathers don’t care. I care.”
To appease his son’s voracious desire to read, Judah got young Isaac a library card. How incredible that decades later, Isaac’s signature would grace the cover of Brooklyn Public Library’s card?
In 1933 the Asimov’s moved again to 1312 Decatur Street. In his memoir, Isaac mentions that during the late twenties and the early thirties he spent a lot of time visiting the library. So which Brooklyn Public Library locations was he visiting?
If you live on Essex Street today, you have a couple neighborhood libraries. The New Lots Library located at 665 New Lots Avenue is the closest to Essex Street. According to The Brooklyn Public Library: A History Volume II by Margaret B. Freeman, “a library was requested by the East End Community Club in 1924 but the Board thought it unwise to establish a library at that time. The request was repeated in 1926 and the Annual Report of that year states that, ‘It was with very great regret that we were forced to decline the offer of free quarters for a library in the New Lots Section.’”
Not to be defeated, in 1942 the Women’s Club of the East New York “Y” opened and operated a small library at 645 Sheffield Avenue. Due to its success Mayor O’Dwyer assured the volunteers that the city would assume financial obligations for the library and the New Lots branch opened in 1949. Great for the neighborhood but sadly much too late for Isaac Asimov to be wondering its halls as an 8-year-old.
The next closest modern-day branch is Cypress Hills. The original Cypress Hills branch was at 465 Fountain Avenue and opened on September 19, 1955. Again, too late for young Isaac. This leaves the Arlington Branch located at 203 Arlington Avenue at Warwick Street.
Originally known as the East Branch, this Carnegie building opened on November 7, 1906. Seeing as how this East Branch was the only branch available to serve the residents of East New York, Cypress Hills and Brownsville, during the 1920’s this would have been the only location in which young Isaac could find refuge.
But what about his time at 1312 Decatur Street? Today the closest branches are DeKalb, Macon, Saratoga, and Washington.
DeKalb opened in 1905
Macon in 1907
Saratoga opened in 1908
And finally, Washington opened in 1923
According to his memoir Isaac’s experiences in the library left an indelible impression. “My real education, the super-structure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.”
When he passed away from complications due to AIDS on April 6th, 1992 his obit referred to young Isaac reading pulpy science fiction novels at his father’s candy shop and yes, much of his career can be tied back to that early influence. But influence is less a straight line than it is a web – strands of Shakespeare lead to strands of The Three Musketeers which lead to French history. Charles Dickens weaved its way into Greek myths and from it all we were given hundreds of novels, short stories, as well as books on math, astronomy, chemistry, physics and biology.
A single pulpy science fiction novel might have opened a door, but it was a library of books that opened the world to young boy in Brooklyn.
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