Every famous person’s autobiography faces a huge challenge. It is very easy for the writer to veer off the trail of truth. There is a very fine line between talking about your personal achievements and blowing your trumpet. ‘Surely you must be joking, Mr. Feynman’ balances this act wonderfully. Feynman does tend to get vain at times and paint himself as the victor in almost all his anecdotes. However, almost nothing is mentioned about his most famous achievements including being awarded the Nobel Prize. To call the book an autobiography would be a misnomer. ‘Surely you must be joking, Mr. Feynman’ is a series of anecdotes involving one of the most colourful people in the scientific world.
This book goes into great detail to cause considerable mirth to the reader. Feynman describes his experiences with seemingly everything other than physics or physicists. He describes his childhood, his student life, his adventures with safe-cracking, pranks and other flippant activities like playing the bongo drums. He even takes some light-hearted digs at mathematicians. ‘So we joked that if something could not be understood, it was trivial’, says Feynman. When he describes his escapade while stealing a colleague’s door, it is so easy to forget that behind this frivolity is the man who is a recipient of the Nobel Prize.
It’s not always fun and games though. The later part of the book assumes a significantly darker theme. Feynman quite candidly shares his views on the atomic bomb and on a more personal level – the death of his wife. Even within his anecdotes, it quite easy to understand Feynman the person, his views and his philosophy. Beneath all the laughter and amusement lies a man who could teach the rest a lesson or two on life.
‘Surely you must be joking…’ does not read like an ordinary book. It reads like Reader’s Digest – a bunch of anecdotes bundled together and presented to you, with Feynman as the common thread that runs throughout. While at a glance, the book might appear to be a light-hearted series of exchanges and incidents, the reader could not be more wrong. Venture a little deeper, and the book stands out as the testimony of a man who refused to stick to any kind of conformity. Amidst all the pranks, the lock-picking experiences, hypnotism or even topless bars, Feynman just reinforces the fact that varied and even ostensibly scandalous interests can be pursued at leisure away from work. After reading the book, there is little wonder about Feynman’s life. Instead, there is a genuine urge to follow one’s insanities and nurture them. This book is not an exhibition of a man’s engaging madness – which is the general perceived view. ‘Surely you must be joking…’ offers hope. It seems to indicate that rules that make no sense need not be accepted. To the vast millions who are trapped in mid-life crises and bewildered in the anonymous corporate world, this book is a testament – you can go crazy, follow your quirks and do what you think is right. It can be done. And that is definitely no joke.