As a child and teenager, Gardner was drawn to anything that smacked of ingenuity. He studied and invented magic tricks. He played chess. He revered science. “Newton,” he observes, “did more to alter the world than any king or queen or great military leader. Einstein, sitting alone and thinking, changed the world more than any politician.” At the University of Chicago, he studied writing with Thornton Wilder and laughed at the crazy, competing academic movements.
Even when Gardner got a job as a social worker during the Great Depression, he took life playfully: “Occasionally a client would be home but unwilling to answer a knock on the door. I had a trick to play. I would slide an envelope under the door, walk away with loud steps, then tiptoe back and plant a foot on the envelope’s end. There would be a few vain tugs, the door would open, and I would say, ‘Hello, I’m your caseworker.’ ”
Pretentious fools are among Gardner’s favorite targets. “Once for fun,” he writes, “I dripped a Pollock parody. I had to take it off a wall because it embarrassed visitors who thought it genuine.” He quotes an auction catalog describing a stick-figure sculpture as “ ‘both a humble image of a man, and a potent symbol of humanity.’ No rhetoric,” Gardner says, “is funnier than the rhetoric of art critics.”