Guest Post: Frank Bukowski’s review of ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman’, by Richard P Feynman.
Knowing from experience how deflating a negative review can be, I have a rule that if I don’t get along with a book I simply put it aside and don’t bother leaving any negative comments. Writing a book is hard enough without some clever dick pouring scorn over your labour of love. However, if the author is deceased I figure I won’t be hurting their feelings much, so I waive my rule. This was the case with ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman’.
Like most people who’ve heard of Richard Feynman I think he was a brilliant scientist, and knowing he was also a bit of a maverick I was expecting an entertaining read. But what I got was a rather dull and self-indulgent set of random anecdotes from his life, that were about as entertaining as the instructions on a soup packet. The chapters read like the diary entries of a teenage bore who’s convinced he’s the most gifted story-teller since Cervantes. 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 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. It was like listening to a bar room braggart relating the dullest details about the minutiae of his life. After fifty pages of this I tried skipping forward to skim a few later chapters, but they seemed just as boring, so I gave up.
In doing so I’m sure someone will tell me I’ve missed out on some wonderful scientific insights later in the book. That may well be the case but hey, life is short and there’s enough great books out there I haven’t read yet without wasting my time on poorly-written ones. I think I read somewhere that the book had been based on recordings made of conversations with Feynman. If that’s so, it could 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.
Summing up, if this book had been written by anyone else, I genuinely don’t think it would have seen the light of day. At least not with any reputable publisher. Any editor worth his salt would have resigned it to the slush pile, on top of the thousands of other amateurish autobiographical manuscripts they get sent every year. Hey look, I am sure it may appeal to Feynman worshippers out there, maybe a few students and other scientists. 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 money. I may pick up this book again at some point in the future to see if I can get on with the later chapters, but for now it is firmly back on the bookshelf. RIP, Dick.