On reading Norman Mailer at the exact moment of his death.

Norman Mailer died at 4:30 am on Saturday the 10th in New York. At the same moment — 1:30am California time — I was in bed reading his book Of A Fire on the Moon, which is about the Apollo moon missions.

Anyone who reads a book inherits a bit of the author’s mind, but perhaps someone who’s reading an author’s work at the exact moment of their death gets a double portion. I hope so.

The chapter I was reading was “The Psychology of Machines.” At one point he suggests that the endless simulations the astronauts ran were the technological equivalent of dreams, in that dreams are the brain’s way of working through various responses to life’s contingencies. That made the mission itself “a dream of the future’s face” (to quote the title of another chapter.) I looked up and said out loud, “That is just so brilliant.”

People don’t think of Mailer as a science writer, but he was an extraordinarily good one. He knew what made rocket engines work, he knew the mechanics of orbit, he knew the intricacies of the Apollo spacecraft, and he explained it all while at the same time exploring what the moon missions meant as a human endeavor. I’ve never seen science writing of such richness and density.

I wonder if he thought to himself, as his mind was dimming, “Someone somewhere must be reading my work right now.” Well, someone was. That was me. Thank you, Norman Mailer.


  1. John Bryson says

    Thank you Michael, I am writing a piece on Journalism and looking back to find where, in Of A Fire on the Moon, I had found Mailer’s fine exploration of the mechanisms of dreams,

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