**spoiler alert** Einstein's Dreams initially caught me off-guard, partly because I sandwiched its reading between a smattering of hard sci-fi, and pa**spoiler alert** Einstein's Dreams initially caught me off-guard, partly because I sandwiched its reading between a smattering of hard sci-fi, and partly because I knew beforehand that the author, Alan Lightman, was a physicist at MIT. The story was a jarring but not unpleasant surprise, like drinking what you thought was a glass of milk and tasting orange juice instead. I was under the impression that the book would scrutinize the physics of different worlds, with a unique working of time within each. However, though Einstein's Dreams presents a rule of time as a starting point for each of its vignettes, the physicality of time isn't really the focus of the book. Rather, the author presents differing modes of time to emphasize the numerous ways in which people perceive aspects of time as it pertains to their lives.
What amazed me the most was how the author was able to lead very naturally from a physical rule at the beginning of a chapter to an elegant, concisely expressed insight into human perception, in just a few - and physically miniature - pages. The stories themselves are no treatises on human nature, and the author has no conceit that they are, but the ratio of what is being communicated to the verbosity of the story is extremely high; so that this book can be called dense, but only in the very best sense of the word.
As an example: in the chapter entitled "22 June 1905", the premise is that the world is of a fixed future, so that all events are preordained. It tells of a chemist who has decided - inasmuch as that word has meaning here - to buy himself a coat with his spare change rather than pay back a friend. The chapter ends as "He breathes the moist air and feels oddly free to do as he pleases, free in a world without freedom." From a simple premise the author touches upon the concept of free will, and is able to make an argument for how, given its lack, one can actually feel freer than if free will did exist, since in essence everything is already decided for everyone. Though it doesn't delve in depth into the question, it does give the reader enough of a start to get the cogs turning, and provides enough of an opinion to get the heart stirring, whether in argument or agreement.
Einstein's Dreams isn't deeply philosophical; it is broadly philosophical, and beautifully so, with its simplicity and scope. There is a hint of sadness as Lightman flits from moment to moment, maybe not dispassionately, but definitely matter-of-factly, describing life, love and death. The story treats each event with care, because each is, individually, an important occurrence; but in the end, it implicitly denies that these events are unique to each other, or even lasting in this world.
P.S. I think the design of the book, in the edition I have, was really well done and parallels the feeling of the text quite well. It may have even contributed to the clean-cut feeling of the story, in a small way...I may be wrong (as I haven't worn a timepiece in ages), but isn't the sans-serif font of the chapter headings and page number, with its slight hint of horizontal predominance, the same as that used in expensive wrist watches? Preeeeetty spiffy, guys....more