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August 17, 2011 / schulerbooks

Ann Arbor author scores big with Feynman biography

I am getting so geeked for the awesome line-up of authors we have coming to the various Schuler stores this fall, and while I was working on the October press release for the Lansing store, I found yet another reason to be excited: a FANTASTIC review in the New York Review of Books!

Ann Arbor resident Jim Ottaviani is recognized as the pre-eminent author of comics and graphic novels about science (though, yes, one does wonder exactly how many such authors there actually are!), and his upcoming release Feynman, about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, is getting great reviews!

Put it on your calendar to see Jim speak at our Lansing store for it’s October 18 meeting of Cafe Scientifique (7 p.m.), and, after the jump, check out segments of the review from New York Review of Books, which says that not only do the “images capture with remarkable sensitivity the essence of Feynman’s character,” but also that “The Ottaviani-Myrick book is the best example of this genre that I have yet seen with text in English.”  Wow!!!!

The ‘Dramatic Picture’ of Richard Feynman

Freeman Dyson

Two new books now raise the question of whether Richard Feynman is rising to the status of superstar. The two books are very different in style and in substance. Lawrence Krauss’s book, Quantum Man, is a narrative of Feynman’s life as a scientist, skipping lightly over the personal adventures that have been emphasized in earlier biographies. Krauss succeeds in explaining in nontechnical language the essential core of Feynman’s thinking. Unlike any previous biographer, he takes the reader inside Feynman’s head and reconstructs the picture of nature as Feynman saw it. This is a new kind of scientific history, and Krauss is well qualified to write it, being an expert physicist and a gifted writer of scientific books for the general public. Quantum Man shows us the side of Feynman’s personality that was least visible to most of his admirers, the silent and persistent calculator working intensely through long days and nights to figure out how nature works.

The other book, by writer Jim Ottaviani and artist Leland Myrick, is very different. It is a comic-book biography of Feynman, containing 266 pages of pictures of Feynman and his legendary adventures. In every picture, bubbles of text record Feynman’s comments, mostly taken from stories that he and others had told and published in earlier books. We see Feynman first as an inquisitive five-year-old, learning from his father to question authority and admit ignorance. He asks his father at the playground, “Why does [the ball] keep moving?” His father says, “The reason the ball keeps rolling is because it has ‘inertia.’ That’s what scientists call the reason…, but it’s just a name. Nobody really knows what it means.” His father was a traveling salesman without scientific training, but he understood the difference between giving a thing a name and knowing how it works. He ignited in his son a lifelong passion to know how things work.

After the scenes with his father, the pictures show Feynman changing gradually through the roles of ebullient young professor and carnival drum-player, doting parent and loving husband, revered teacher and educational reformer, until he ends his life as a wrinkled sage in a losing battle with cancer. It comes as a shock to see myself portrayed in these pages, as a lucky young student taking a four-day ride with Feynman in his car from Cleveland to Albuquerque, sharing with him some unusual lodgings and entertained by an unending stream of his memorable conversation….

In the final scene of the comic book, Feynman is walking on a mountain trail with his friend Danny Hillis. Hillis says, “I’m sad because you’re going to die.” Feynman replies, “Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But not as much as you think. See, when you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you’ve told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway. Hey! I bet I can show you a better way home.” And Hillis is left alone on the mountain. These images capture with remarkable sensitivity the essence of Feynman’s character. The comic-book picture somehow comes to life and speaks with the voice of the real Feynman.

Twenty years ago, when I was traveling on commuter trains in the suburbs of Tokyo, I was astonished to see that a large fraction of the Japanese commuters were reading books, and that a large fraction of the books were comic books. The genre of serious comic-book literature was highly developed in Japan long before it appeared in the West. The Ottaviani-Myrick book is the best example of this genre that I have yet seen with text in English. Some Western readers commonly use the Japanese word manga to mean serious comic-book literature. According to one of my Japanese friends, this usage is wrong. The word manga means “idle picture” and is used in Japan to describe collections of trivial comic-book stories. The correct word for serious comic-book literature is gekiga, meaning “dramatic picture.” The Feynman picture-book is a fine example of gekiga for Western readers.

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