richard feynman

No, really, surely you ARE joking, Mr Feynman

Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman front cover

Knowing from experience how deflating a poor review can be, I have a rule that if I don’t get along with a book I usually simply put it aside without hurling vitriolic abuse at the poor author on Amazon. I can’t really see the point. Writing a book is damn hard enough without some talentless hater pouring scorn over your labour of love. However, if the author is deceased I figure I probably won’t be hurting their feelings, so I sometimes waive my rule.

Also, like a lot of wannabe novelists struggling to earn a living, it’s often rankled me that publishers who casually toss the manuscripts of unknown writers onto the slush pile with barely a second glance will fall over themselves to publish the floor-sweepings of celebrities. There seems to be one rule for the rich and famous and another one for everybody else.

I read one such book recently, Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman by, you guessed it, Richard Feynman. To say I read it is a bit of a porky. I actually got about a quarter of the way through, by which time I’d almost lost the will to live.

If you’ve never heard of him, Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize-winning scientist who was part of the team that cooked up the atom bomb in World War Two. Like most people who’d read a bit about him I knew he was a brilliant physicist. He was a maverick who had a knack of explaining really complicated things in simple ways, so he became a pop star of the scientific world. When I saw this book on Amazon I put it straight in my cart and headed to the checkout without even bothering to sample the ‘look inside’ free section at the beginning. I was sure it would be an entertaining read. I won’t make that mistake again.

Sadly, from page one I found this book to be a real slog. It seemed to me little more than a brain dump of dull and self-indulgent anecdotes from Feyman’s life, that were about as entertaining as the instructions on a soup packet. The chapters read like the rambling diary entries of a socially-challenged teenager who’s convinced he’s secretly the most gifted story-teller since Cervantes. The book’s title is a dead giveaway. You could almost hear Feynman laughing aloud at his own jokes as he wrote, but they just weren’t funny. I also found Feynman’s somewhat conceited view of himself a bit surprising for such a great scientist, and quite off-putting. There was hardly a page where he wasn’t telling us how he outsmarted someone, proving some poor sap was an idiot and he was the only one with any brains. “The world is full of this kind of smart-alec who doesn’t understand anything,” he smugly notes, like some pub bore bragging about besting his neighbour. He seemed to spend a fair bit of time perving after women too in his stories, but hey who am I to talk. Anyhow, after fifty pages I tried skipping forward to a few later chapters but they seemed just as irritating, so I gave up.

In doing so I’m sure someone will tell me I’ve missed out on some wonderful scientific insights. That may well be the case but hey, life is short and there’s only so many great books you can read without wasting time on disappointing ones. I think I heard somewhere that Feynman’s book had been based on recordings of conversations someone had taped with him. If that’s so, it would explain the clumsy prose style and awkward sentence constructions. Thank god Feynman had such a brilliant career as a scientist, because he was no writer, based on this title.

If I was rating it out of five, I’d give this book no more than two stars. If it had been written by anyone else I don’t think it would have seen the light of day. That said, I’m sure it may still appeal to any Feynman worshippers or disciples out there, eager to devour the most trivial fact they can find about his life. But if you’re not one of those, and you’re looking for a well-written autobiography by a born story teller, I would check out the free sample on Amazon before parting with your dosh. I may pick up this book again at some point in the future to see if the later chapters yield up some gripping scientific yarns, but for now it is firmly back on the bookshelf. RIP, Dick.

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