Walter Isaacson’s New Book Celebrates Three Notable Women

FINE PRINT Voracious bibliophiles have a funny habit of grazing the fine print — dedication, epigraph and acknowledgments — before tucking into the main course of a book. For many readers, these pages are like a peek inside a master chef’s spice cabinet; they hint at influences on the person who is about to host a pop-up buffet in your brain.

Consider Walter Isaacson’s latest opus, “The Code Breaker,” which is now No. 2 in its second week on the hardcover nonfiction list. The star of the book is Jennifer Doudna, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who helped invent CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing tool that has played a role in the fight against Covid-19. But on the dedication page are two bright lights from the publishing solar system: Carolyn Reidy, longtime head of Simon & Schuster, and Alice Mayhew, who was Isaacson’s editor for 40 years. Both women died in 2020.

“When I came to Alice and said, I want to do a book about this little-known scientist with a hard-to-pronounce last name who’s developed a system with an acronym that people don’t know what it stands for, I thought she would balk,” said the veteran author in a phone interview where he was cordially miffed by my confession of lifelong nightmares about the periodic table. He went on: “Instead, Alice said, yes, it’s the greatest journey of discovery you could do. She urged me not to make this a science textbook but a human detective story in which colorful characters enjoy the thrill of discovery.”

Mayhew knew the science well because, in 1979, she edited Horace Freeland Judson’s “The Eighth Day of Creation,” which Isaacson called “the classic of the genre.” In December 2019, he sent Mayhew a draft of his own book. “She came back with a torrent of suggestions,” Isaacson recalled. “And then she did not live to see it through, so that’s why I wanted to dedicate the book to her.”

Of Carolyn Reidy, who was at the helm of Simon & Schuster when he published “Leonardo da Vinci,” “The Innovators” and “Steve Jobs,” Isaacson said, “She had the same thousand-watt smile that Alice did. So as I was writing, I kept thinking, I hope I can write each passage so that it will make them smile.”

Isaacson also hopes “The Code Breaker” will illuminate the “science revolution” for readers. He explained, “What I try to do in my books is show how these are real people, just as if you were reading about a musician or painter. But they paint the beauty of nature, and it’s a fun journey of discovery.”

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