Biographers who write about power and innovation often acquire a certain cachet. That’s certainly the case with celebrity author Walter Isaacson, whose new 600-pager on Elon Musk is all but guaranteed to be one of the bestselling nonfiction titles of the year. As Shawn McCreesh’s profile for New York Magazine makes clear, journalistic proximity to the world’s richest person makes for an interesting story in and of itself. Though questions persist about whether that proximity influences Isaacson’s reporting, there’s no doubt that the native Louisianan tells a hell of a story.
Isaacson is a particular type of biographer. His book is driven by listen-to-everyone-he-can access. It is not the Robert Caro approach with granular, yearslong reportage on the nature and implications of Musk’s power. Washington Post’s Will Oremus wrote in his September 10 review that “the larger concern is whether Isaacson’s heavy reliance on Musk as a primary source throughout his reporting kept him too close to his subject. Swaths of the book are told largely through Musk’s eyes and those of his confidants.” The book is scrupulously unsnarky — don’t expect the tone of the book Joe Hagan wrote on Jann Wenner. “It is pure narrative storytelling; there’s not preaching in there,” says Isaacson. “People will come away from this book, if they admire Musk, with more evidence that they would like. If they hate Musk, they’ll come away with more evidence to reinforce their dislike of him. Hopefully, there will be a large group of readers who’ll say, ‘Wow, I get it, it’s more complex, and there’s not simply one way to look at it.’”