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:
...you 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.