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Buzz Book Review: Two Autobios of Brilliant Minds

In an homage to Steve Jobs, here are two sparkling, funny autobios of two entertaining Nobel Prize-winners. These are not lugubrious, Oscar-ready stories of Great Men (I’m thinking of you, A Beautiful Mind), but, rather, lively, unexpectedly weird first-hand accounts of what it’s really like to be so much smarter than everyone else (it’s FUN!).

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman is a series of charming, funny, anecdotal conversations, as Richard Feynman had a universal consciousness which counted everyone as a friend. A Nobel Prize winner for his work on the Bomb, he wore his mantle lightly, and talks here about his hobby of safecracking (and, yes, he indulged this up at Los Alamos), his prize-winning stint in a Carnival band in Rio, and so much more. His lighthearted intimacy underscores the deep river of intelligence that runs beneath his narrative and reminds us that the capacity for humaneness is an integral part of the scientific quest.

Dancing Naked in the Mind Field highlights another Nobel Prize winner (for the polymerase chain reaction) — and this one acts like a frat boy, if that frat boy were a certified genius with unlimited funds (he’s been called the first surfer laureate). Wild, eccentric, and frankly egotistic, Kary B. Mullis treats us to his adventures and unorthodox ideas, unedited and unexpurgated: he believes he has been abducted by aliens, and was an expert witness at the O.J. trial; he thinks astrology is true, but not global warming. His contradictions — and rash behavior — define his journey, and it’s an enjoyable ride-along.

Both Feynman and Mullis are brilliant, of course, yet they were both idiosyncratic, self-contradictory, and full of the same human faults we all share. Dan Lyon’s terrific Daily Beast  review of Isaacson’s bio, Steve Jobs, Unvarnished, is poignant about Jobs’ own flaws and accomplishments:

“Isaacson says Jobs told him one reason he wanted to have a biography written was so that his children would know him…This must be one of the saddest things I have ever read. The picture here is of a brilliant, successful yet amazingly narrow, limited, and ungenerous man, who, even as he was dying, could not let go of his desire to outdo his enemies and could not imagine anything more fulfilling to do with his limited time on earth than building more new gadgets and gizmos, a man who put work ahead of his family and was often appallingly hurtful to the people closest to him. He was, in other words, a man of his time, a symbol of all that is great and all that is wrong with our culture.”

Best of the Best-Sellers: You can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis, and his Moneyball and The Big Short top the lists today, with Boomerang to follow quickly. Lost in the Lewis hoopla is an early title and one my own favorites, The New New Thing, the story of Jim Clark, whose style, power and obsessions are remarkably similar to Steve Jobs’.

LA Moll is a local book passionista who finds hidden treasures to share. All books reviewed can be purchased at Larchmont Village’s Chevalier’s Books.  You may order a copy of any of the books mentioned above by emailing Chevaliers, and pick them up at the store.  Shop LOCAL.

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