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The Prodigy by Amy Wallace

The Prodigy is Amy Wallace's  biography of William James Sidis, a child prodigy who lived in the first half of the 20th century. He was apparently quite famous in his day, although I had never heard of him until Michael AtlasMovie Brown posted a link about him on his facebook page.

One reason for Sidis's current obscurity is that he didn't do much  to leave a legacy for himself. I was almost going to say he didn't make a lot of intellectual contributions, but that's not really true. He wrote plenty of books and articles, but many of them were pseudonymous and he didn't go out of his way to promote them. This was a deliberate choice on his part. He'd had his fill of the spotlight when, at age 11, he was the youngest person ever to enroll at Harvard, and so an adult devised many ruses to stay out of the spotlight.

Wallace manages to do two things well in this book. She paints a very detailed picture of Sidis's life, and also addresses the more general issue of problems faced by child prodigies. She is very concerned with debunking the "Sidis fallacy" which is the notion that "pushing gifted youngsters may have adverse consequences". She laments that it has "given a bad name to the idea of tending to the special needs of bright children".

In addition to Sidis, Wallace briefly examines the lives of Norbert Wiener and Adolf Berle, both of whom at the age of 14 attended Harvard with Sidis.
She also briefly discusses John Stuart Mill, a child prodigy who predated Sidis, Wiener, and Berle.  Inclusion of these three other prodigies is no mere tangent. Their later success in life gives the lie to the notion that child prodigies burn out later in life.

Wallace also debunks many of the falsehoods that later circulated about Sidis, such as the canard that he had a nervous breakdown and was forced to go to the sanitarium his father ran.

But there's much more than debunking in this book. We learn of Sidis's considerable literary output. His first (and only one to bear his name) was The Animate And The Inanimate. This was a book on cosmogeny which, among other things, talked about black holes before any other physicist did. There was also his Notes On The Collection Of  Transfers ("transfers" refers to subway transfers), which Wallace calls "arguably the most boring book ever written." She says this with a hint of affection bordering on admiration, adding "as every bibliophile knows, the competition is fierce." It certainly established Sids as America's leading peridromophile. (Forgive the obscure terminology...I just learned this big word from reading Wallace's book and cannot resist showing off.) He also wrote an unconventional history of the United States called The Tribes And The States.

Beyond the discussion of his literary output, Wallace paints a vivid picture of Sidis the man. We see an intellectually gifted man who lives in a rented room, goes to work and operates a comptometer (another big word I learned from reading this book), and never cares  if the world knows about his accomplishments. The epilogue opens with a quote from Ayn Rand, and that is appropriate. Sidis reminds me of nothing so much as Howard Roark working at his construction job.

A mere blog entry is not sufficient to give a full picture of William James Sidis or to discuss all of the interesting points made in Wallace's book. For the former, I would recommend you visit The Sidis Archives, which in addition to having his existing works, as well as some biographical material. For the latter, read the book. it is worth reading.

 


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