“Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman: Fiction Book Review

If you come across “Einstein’s Dreams” on a shelf somewhere, the subscript below the title, “A Novel”, may feel a little misleading after you’ve reached the end of the book.  Of the small book’s 140 pages, 15 of them (I counted!) contain the actual “plot” of the book, with small snippets of time shared by Einstein and Besso, the Glaucon to Einstein’s Socrates.

When writing a new story, the shift from interesting premise to vehicle for a larger plot is usually the pivotal point for the survival of an idea to completion, but in the case of “Einstein’s Dreams,” this idea is set aside, and it just works.  As a reader, it appears that Lightman recognized that the extension of the interludes between the individual “Dreams” would draw focus and impact away from dreams themselves.

Each of the ideas on time presented in the book, despite only being two to three pages long, are in their turn engaging, pull at your heartstrings, and horrifying to contemplate.  While reading, I had the odd feeling of the stories taking longer to read through than they logically could have, something I attribute to concise, but highly visual prose. The sentences themselves, as if to “save” time, are often what feels almost aggressively short, playing into the sense of urgency portrayed in the concepts of time.

It’s a testament to the skill of Lightman’s storytelling that after reading “Einstein’s Dreams,” I’m left with the feeling that I could just as well read an entire book set in any of the time dimensions(?) that he describes, as one on the shared experiences of Einstein and Besso. In a novel with such a scarcity of dialogue, he sells the experiences of the people in each of the dreams of time so clearly and believably that it feels to be much closer to running through memories in the Pensieve in Harry Potter than reading someone’s breakdowns of how time works. But that really seems to have been the point all along, it’s in the title after all.

If you’ve ever wanted to delve into the world of physics and time travel, without the headache of physics or time travel, this is the book for you. Or if you enjoy stories about people who just want to hold people and be held by the people they love, it’s also the one for you. Equal opportunity, as it were.

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