May 19, 2017
Finding connections between apparently disparate things has to be one of the most satisfying capacities of the human mind. It is certainly one of the best practices of a student or a teacher—especially a teacher who believes as strongly as I do in the power of interdisciplinary thinking. This piece, however, is not about an interdisciplinary connection, but rather an inter-genre one.
What could the two books, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard P. Feynman, possibly have to do with each other? One is a more-than-century-old young readers’ classic novel, and the other is a collection of miscellaneous interviews and speeches given by one of the twentieth century’s most renowned physicists. The answer is simple: they both made me laugh.
Sometimes I focus so much on the cerebral content of books, or on the effectiveness with which they deliver pathos or passion or some noteworthy moral, that I forget how wonderful it is to just laugh. Anne Shirley has to be one of the best characters in the canon of young adult literature. She is so full of spunky cheerfulness and zest for life that you can’t help but root for her to experience every depth of despair and height of elation possible for a young girl. The story itself is fairly formulaic, with each chapter answering the question, ‘What new accidental mischief has Anne gotten up to now?’ The thing is that, because Anne is so endearing and her misadventures so entertaining, the formula is enough to carry you along. And, as you follow Anne’s adventures in her new home, you laugh constantly. She’s just such a character—surrounded by ‘straight men’ (and women)—that you can’t help but laugh. Humor is central to the greatness of Anne of Green Gables.
As for The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, I had heard that Richard Feynman was brilliant. Quirky. A great teacher. A unique mind. I know now that, in addition to all of those descriptors, he was also extremely funny. I stopped this audio book many times to jot down eloquent turns of phrase and pithy crystallizations of profound ideas, but even more than that I laughed out loud. Feynman’s descriptions of his safe-cracking exploits at Los Alamos while working on the Manhattan Project, his joyful recollections of walking in the woods with his father as a child, and his incredulous tales of exploring various pseudoscientific activities are all filled with the kind of soulful humor that makes you wish you had known the man. His brilliance, quirkiness, teaching ability, and uniqueness are all on display as well in this book, but his humor is what makes it special.
Clearly we are in a moment of crisis, but even (or especially?) in a crisis, humor is an essential means of regeneration and, ultimately, hope. I read Anne of Green Gables and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out for reasons that had nothing to do with needing regeneration or an infusion of hope, but that’s what I got. So, thank you to melodramatic fictional orphan girls and irreverent Nobel prize-winners: you made my week!