Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The books that made you who you are

Not the books that influenced your writing--those we've covered elsewhere. No, I'm talking about the books that formed your personality--the ones that taught you how to live. It is true of my life, and I suspect of others' as well, that it isn't always the best written or the most artistically satisfying that show us what we can be. A lot of philosophical questions to which I would never otherwise have been exposed to came to me, in my teens, through the hammily-written sci-fi novels I loved; Stephen King got me thinking seriously for the first time about sex and death.

But I think the biggest influence on my personality has to be physicist Richard Feynman's as-told-to memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, which I first read in paperback at the age of 16, and which gave me a sense, entering adulthood, of what sort of man I wanted to be.

OK, I guess I was never destined to be the tireless ladies' man that Feynman was. And I'm sure there are people out there who find this book insufferably boastful--re-reading it now, for Rhian's annual husbands-welcome book group meeting, I realize that the entire narrative is an extended brag, albeit undercut by a charming (to me) self-deprecation.

But Feynman was a great intellect and a fascinating character, as James Gleick's superb biography bears out, and he served as an excellent role model for me. An expert in his field, Feynman nonetheless eagerly put himself in places and situations that were unfamiliar to him--a dance for the deaf, Brazilian samba bands, biology lectures. He was someone for whom work and play, the realms of the social and intellectual, were one and the same. He recounts his conversations with an illiterate nightclub emcee with the same enthusiasm he describes being defended, at his first lecture, by Albert Einstein.

Feynman gave me a notion of myself that I still hold dear. I wanted to be charming, but to show respect. I wanted to work hard and enjoy myself doing it. I wanted to be funny without being a clown. I wanted to be willing to try anything new without fear of embarrassment. I wanted to treat failure as an opportunity to learn, and success as an opportunity to be grateful to others.

I realize that this book isn't necessarily a true or full picture of Feynman--rather, it's the way Feynman wanted to be seen. It is his ideal version of himself. But what better role model for my ideal (and equally unachievable) version of myself? I don't live up to it, of course, but whatever.

It's been a particualr pleasure, this time around, to read about Feynman's time at Cornell, particularly his mini-manifesto on teaching, and why it helps, not hinders, one's work. "If you're teaching a class," he writes: can think about the elementary things you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn't do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them?...The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I've thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn't do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now...So I find that teaching and the students keep life going.

When I last read this book, I hadn't the slightest inkling that I would ever be a teacher. The greatest surprise this time around has been discovering that it still has something new for me.


Levi Stahl said...

I felt very much the same about Feynman's books when I was a kid.
Every once in a while I think I might turn back to them to see whether they're still as magical as they were then; I've always resisted because I didn't want to risk discovering in Feynman a blowhard or self-aggrandizing jerk. Your clear-eyed assessment of him on re-reading gives me confidence that I'd still enjoy his company.

Sasha said...

Peter Pan.

I loved "Hook" and begged for the fancy, twenty-dollar Peter Pan edition. Guess that edition was so fancy as to be unabridged. It was full of spilling blood and real danger, something I'd never read about before.

I loved it! I forced my friends to play "Peter Pan" with me every day, in a kind of live-action fan-fic. (I was always Peter, of course). That period was the first time I dove into a fully-formed fantasy land--not just playing pretend, but forming whole narratives.

The magic died for me on Halloween when, all dressed up as Peter Pan though I was, my parents followed (chatting!) while my friends and I trick or treated. There wasn't any real danger at all.

Still, reading Peter Pan was the first time a story really opened up for me, when fiction became a place to experiment and create and to learn things I couldn't while trapped in real life.

I haven't re-read it since--haven't had the heart to.

Anonymous said...

So when, in your present day life, do you most feel you're channeling Pan?

Lisa Peet said...

I think there's something about Feynman that appeals to smart teenage boys. My son loved his books so much he gave me a copy of Surely You're Joking for Mother's Day when he was 16. And even though he's been out of the house a few years, his copy of Six Not-So-Easy Pieces is still banging around the back seat of my car (probably more a reflection of my terrible car upkeep than any sentimentality on my part).

jon said...

I read Feynman in my late twenties, and loved him. Especially when he talks about the basic questions, and about real science as opposed to what they teach in schools. When he is young he has to give a lecture to a bunch of Nobel laureates and only realizes later that much of his explanation was unnecessary because they all 'could see it' as feynman himself would one day be able to.
Kenneth Rexroth's Autobiographical Novel, Robert Graves' The White Goddess, On the Road, books like that made me want to live a certain way, be a certain way, free of convention, immersed in arcana, the romance of being a vagabond. I didn't want to write like them, but live and think like them. There are probably dozens of others. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. They woke me up to an inner and outer world and that how you choose to live your life is significant. Graves said a poet could never march under a flag or owe allegiance to a state, a poet should not lead or follow.

Sasha said...


I don't get to channel Peter Pan anymore. Maybe he can't exist in a (broke) grown-up's world?

Suggestions welcome. :) How do people find real thrill?

It feels like all the freshness has rubbed off, now that I'm part of (adult) life. Reading and writing are necessary because they offer a chance to escape from my all-too-limited skin. But it seems sad to live life in a fictive world.

Maybe Peter Pan's gone for good?

(And THIS is why I refuse to re-read that book :P)

Anonymous said...

If you haven't seen them already, Feynman's letters have been collected in "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Path".
There are a few in there that are very memorable.

Anonymous said...

I will have to check out those letters!

Sasha, you gotta go learn to do new stuff. At least that's what I like to do. Photography, building electronic things, playing music...right now I'm trying to teach myself the drums while I work on my novel have to convince yourself things are worth doing, even if you're going to suck at them. That's part of what I'm getting from Feynman this time around, too.

Louis said...

This is one of my biggest influences too. He is one of the greatest story tellers of all time, I think. He constructed a legend of his life.

Rich said...

Nice post, I found that book rather influential at an early age too. you might consider checking out Mlodinow's book "Feynman's Rainbow." Very nice book about working near Feynman during the end of his life and of Feynman's influence on Mlodinow.

rmellis said...

In our day (not SO long ago) it was rare to find inspiring books about women. So my heroes were all men: I wanted to write like Ray Bradbury and live like Jack Kerouac. Or be Lewis Leakey or Isaac Asimov.

The women and girls I admired were Anne Frank and Helen Keller: admirable, but hardly emulatable.

PoetHope said...

As a teen, I read "Some Other Place, The Right Place" by Donald Harington. I had no idea at the time how strange a book it was/is. It has stayed with me for 30 years. Last year I was amazed to find that it was still in print -- and bought a copy for my 21-year-old daughter. I just finished re-reading it. Full of travel, camping, writing, sex, life after death, death, incest, time travel (sort of) ... very influential.

I have to agree with John about King, too. I recall reading "Carrie" in my eighth grade chorus class and being blown away.

And Rhian, it's true, until I found Plath and Atwood and Adrienne Rich in college, it was hard to find women writing heroes. I mean, Judy Blume? come on.

(It's Hope, by the way, I finally stopped lurking and signed on so I can join the conversation!)

Anonymous said...

Hey Hope, welcome aboard! Did we ever tell you about the time we met Judy Blume, at random, in a restaurant? Say what you will, but we were starstruck...she was a delightful person, and her husband was really into his new iPhone.

There are of course many great female role models for one's writing, but not many who have the kind of cultural cachet of a Kerouac, in terms of a possible life model for an adventurous and intelligent woman. Perhaps that's changed now? Are girls today reading some kickass memoir we don't know about?

Frankly, I would like to see more women model themselves on Feynman, particularly in science. And I think science is indeed finally diversifying.

zoe said...

I have to say, I did see some of Judy Bloom's characters as role models. Probably mostly because there weren't a great deal of cool literature girls around. We had a TV character here called Marmalade Atkins who, I think, was from a book originally. She definitely influenced me because she was noisy and naughty. I'm trying desperately to think of book heroes, but I couldn't say anyone stood out really until I was 11 and my English teacher gave me The Catcher In The Rye. I know it's a horrible cliche but Holden Caufield was a huge influence until I read the Bell Jar and The Edible Woman in the next year or so.
There seem to be more girl characters around now but, judging by the girls I teach, the focus seems to be on the supernatural and musicals. Not very encouraging. Although, who am I to judge?

PoetHope said...

Actually, I'm sure Judy Blume is a lovely person, and I gobbled up her books as a teen like I did the early Stephen Kings. So I was probably a little hard on her. But I never wanted to write like her, the way I want to write like (sort of) Margaret Atwood, or maybe Joyce Carol Oates, or Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway!

Unknown said...

"Ishi in Two Worlds" by Theodora Kroeber. That book built entirely new paths in my brain--I still use some of them. I think it was the first work of non-fiction I read that wasn't a picture book or an encyclopedia. I was 12.

Sasha said...

Is it wrong that when I was a kid my favorite female character was Mary from The Secret Garden? I mean, I COULD NOT STAND that brown-nose Sarah Crewe :P

Actually, the problem wasn't a paucity of female characters or writers when I was a kid, but that most "heroines" were just *so* saccharine. Who wants to read about babysitters helping disabled children (Babysitter's Club), or sisters waiting for their Papa to come home and/or to get married (Little Women), or students studying super hard so they can help the Chosen One (Harry Potter) who meanwhile crushes on other girls? Ugh. Aren't those the *opposite* of compelling characters?

And thanks for your recommendation, @ jrlennon. I've never thought about it, but you're right...doing all those things I've always said I would never do is probably a good start towards, yanno, learning/excitement/new experiences.

Well, when it comes to hobbies, anyway (as opposed to criminal acts).

ed skoog said...

Lewis Thomas, Robert Graves -- interesting connection, but I see it. The play of the mind plus the sense of the playground being long-inhabited.

Evan S. Connell exists in this space too.

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Nancy said...

I loved how when Feynman was asked to contribute to the space shuttle disaster investigation he went straight to the people at the bottom of the pecking order at Nasa. It was those people who knew so much & gave him leads. And when he had to show what went wrong to a group of journalists, he dropped a rubber band into a glass of ice water.
I looked up to him a lot, and loved his playfulness.

Zachary Cole said...

Get on this, folks! As we all know, "real money" is indeed in short supply. Why, yesterday the guy in front of me at the bank tried to give the teller Monopoly bills.