I’ve never been a follower of Feynman’s work—in fact, I was only familiar with him in passing, in a vague “famous physicist, somehow connected with The Bomb” sort of way. But his name gets dropped all the time, and so when I found this book, I thought it might be interesting to try it out.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that literary skill does not necessarily follow genius in all things physics. This is Feynman’s autobiography, and it shows. A more seasoned chronicler would have had the good sense to keep it interesting.
The problem here is that the book consists mostly of anecdotes that don’t really have any impact on the narrative or the author, except perhaps in an abstract, mosaic kind of way. A paragraph or two about fixing radios; a paragraph about getting desserts while working at a hotel; an entire chapter about a Jewish frat. Snoooore: Feynman sounds like a senile grandfather with a capful of bourbon telling long, winding stories to his fidgety grandchildren, who are meanwhile praying for death. The awfulness of the plot (or the lack thereof) is only slightly alleviated when Feynman gets to his years with The Bomb, which is more interesting from a technical standpoint, but still reads as if written by a novice high-schooler blogging his day on MySpace.
I gave the man some latitude because he’s so widely regarded; I gave him more because I know he’s got an interesting story to tell; for the life of me, I couldn’t enjoy this book.
Perhaps that has something to do with the other, more galling, aspect of the thing: not only does Feynman consistently understate his own accomplishments, but he apparently made a decision early in the writing of the biography that it would be purely narrative, and would barely touch the interesting part of his life—that is, the science, math, and technology. All the good morsels I picked up reading his entry on Wikipedia, for instance, are nowhere to be found in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!.
I suppose if you’re man interested in the man than the work, this book will be significantly less painful for you to read than it was for me. If you’re technically inclined, however, it may behoove you to look elsewhere.