Book Review: Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain by Michael Paterniti.
On a recent flight, I flipped through an airline magazine and found an article about road-trip books.
While road-trips and air travel represent different experiences, they both tap into the same wanderlust spirit.
Among the five or so books featured in the 2009 piece, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain (2000) by Michael Paterniti piqued my interest. It was presented as a memoir about a road trip wherein Paterniti transported via car Einstein’s brain across the United States. For obvious reasons, many questions surfaced. Why was Einstein's brain not with the body? Why was it being transported? Why did Paterniti's traveling companion have the brain?
I also wondered how the cargo--the defunct brain--could drive the traveling story, occurring decades later.
I found my answers with Driving Mr. Albert, and discovered much more. The book was part biography, part travelogue, part autobiography, part philosophical ruminations, and part cultural commentary.
The author, Paterniti, also expresses surprise at how it turned out. "To be honest I thought the road trip would be a caper. That's what I imagined. And I thought the old doctor [Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey, who performed Einstein's 1955 autopsy and had the brain] would be entertaining. And yet desire is a tricky thing. It can transform a quick outing to the store for milk into a lifelong, shoeless quest through the Himalayas in search of enlightenment. It can put you on the road to Canterbury without your realizing it at first. And some version of that happened." (p. vii.)
Operating as a biography, the book delved into the lives of Einstein as well as Harvey, both of whom led colorful lives. Einstein has been quoted by both atheists and theists to support their views and Paterniti couldn't resist either, but he captures something for everyone in a single quote: "'Science without religion is lame...religion without science is blind.'" (p. 126.)
As a travelogue, the book covers stops ranging from the mundane to the bizarre. For examples, a tour of a Truman museum as well as a strange encounter with novelist William S. Burroughs spice the text. From chance exchanges with fellow travellers to a tour of a concrete "Garden of Eden" Paterniti does not disappoint in capturing the wildly unpredictable nature of road-tripping.
Working as an autobiography (with his philosophical ruminations), Paterniti records how the multifaceted experience stretched, challenged and strengthened him. An example of his thoughts and exquisite writing: "And the land--the way American keeps coming and coming in rich, if now fallow fields, stretching to the horizon, the way the awesome power of this endlessness is the key to some deep sense of freedom--begins to reimpose an ancient language of wind and silence. It's all so strangely beautiful and at the same time raises the ghost of some kind of melancholy, a thought that, though we belong to this country as much as this country belongs to us, we only move through its rooms as momentary visitors, projected our ideas on its walls, that the best we can do is live a good life, perhaps add a couple of replicas of ourselves, but then must hand it over, however temporarily again, to another generation..." (p. 60.)