In recent years, Linus Torvalds, creator and maintainer of the free Linux operating system, has become known as many things. Charismatic, unassuming and prone to penguin logos, he is the warm and fuzzy darling of the open source software movement.

Uncompromising in his contempt for poorly written programs and the proprietary business models that are usually responsible for them, Torvalds is to corporations something of a devil incarnate. His picture is said to grace dartboards hung on Microsoft’s hallowed walls, and Microsoft’s infamous internal memos about the threat Linux was posing to Windows were circulated, fittingly, on Halloween. Forbes has made Torvalds out to be the hippie lovechild of programming, placing him on a 1998 cover alongside the caption “Peace, Love, Software.” Still others see him as a noble warrior doing battle against the evil capitalist force that is Bill Gates.

In Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, Torvalds and co-author David Diamond reject these depictions. Acknowledging reluctantly that he has become the “poster boy” for Linux, and that he feels at times like its “hood ornament,” Torvalds denies having any grand political or economic designs. Indeed, with characteristic irreverence, he denies having any designs at all. Linux, he maintains, was done like everything else he has ever done: just for fun. All the rest – the fame, the power, the wealth, the BMW Z3 – is accidental, just stuff that happened along the way.

And Linux itself?

Nowhere near as important as the energy that it has generated, Torvalds insists. If Linux hasn’t been replaced by “Fredix” or even “Diannix” within a few years, he says, something is wrong with the world. And if we are still even discussing operating systems 15 years from now, something is really wrong with the world. To Torvalds, who in 1991 wrote Linux in a dark Helsinki bedroom in between bouts of sleep, bags of pretzels, the occasional shower and the even more occasional trip to campus, the largest collaborative project in history is ultimately an accident destined for obsolescence.

Such an outlook might well infuriate people who take business seriously, especially people who take the tech business seriously. But that, despite what Torvalds says, seems far from accidental. In Just For Fun, Torvalds turns the genre of the business memoir on its head, framing his phenomenal success as the story of a geeky Finn whose big nose and love of computers predisposed him to learn assembly language, whose boredom with college led him to write a terminal emulator for his new computer, whose inability to stop tinkering with his terminal emulator became a compulsion to develop an operating system, whose youthful desire to show off led him to make his new OS freely available to the world, whose unintentional deletion of the borrowed parts of the system led him to write his own versions of the code he had destroyed, and whose feeling of responsibility toward those who were trying to run his baby OS led him to perfect it.

To hear Torvalds tell it, he never had a plan, he just had an accident. And that accident just happened to cause a revolution in the tech industry. Linux quickly got better and better, and spread further and further. It didn’t seek a niche, but just made itself available to all comers. Support-centered companies such as Red Hat and SuSE sprang up, and soon Netscape, Sun, and IBM were hitching themselves to the Linux star. Torvalds moved to the U.S., went to work at the mysterious Transmeta and became a millionaire on August 11, 1999 -the day Red Hat held the first Linux IPO.

Treating quality leisure time as the epitome of success and brushing off wealth, glory and fame as the insignificant vagaries of a life whose real value lies elsewhere, Just For Fun is a book about when big business happens to people who care far more about creating than marketing, and who love what they do for its own sake. As such, it is not just a book about an alternative business model – the open source movement – but about an alternative affect, one that honors the joy of creative work more than the humorless pursuit of profit, and that sees fun, rather than power or money, as the proper goal of life. A cynic might suggest that such truisms are easy for a multimillionaire to spout. But the story of Torvalds’ life bears out his sincerity on this point. Torvalds’ mother recalls how easy her single-minded son was to raise: “Just give Linus a spare closet with a good computer in it and feed him some dry pasta and he will be perfectly happy.”

As his mother’s comment suggests, Torvalds’ real genius lies not so much in his programming abilities, though those are extraordinary, but in his capacity for that thing so many of us never learn to do: have fun. Fun, Torvalds believes, is at heart very far from the frivolous thing capitalism and religion have made it out to be. Fun is, rather, the highest form of human behavior, the thing that comes after survival and community, the thing, in other words, that not only makes life worth living, but is – or ought to be – a lifestyle in itself. A threatening view, perhaps, to people whose lives are ordered after the puritanical assumption that pleasure has its time and its place, and must be earned by virtuous application to implicitly unpleasant work.

But it needn’t be. Torvalds is very far from advocating a life spent drinking beer in front of the tube, or, indeed, a life in any way committed to sloth. Rather, Torvalds is advocating real fun, the fun that comes from finding out what you like to do, and doing it as fully as your heart and brain desire (for Stephen Covey fans, this is Quadrant Two fun rather than Quadrant Four fun).

There is great faith in human nature underlying this theory. Torvalds earnestly believes that if left to their own devices, most people will apply themselves to something, and that good things – wonderful, unpredictable things – will naturally come of it. As a business outlook, this is a far cry from the world of time clocks, cubicles, scheduled breaks and monitored computer use. It is, instead, an ethos that has become known, thanks to Eric Raymond and Pekka Himanen, as the “hacker ethic,” the principled, dedicated, passionate play that defines the life of the diehard programmer. Just For Fun may be read as an example of the hacker ethic in action. And Torvalds, that reluctant hood ornament, may be read as the hacker ethic’s most popular action figure.

Torvalds’ story is sprinkled with random discussions on geekdom, the Finnish penchant for gadgets, compulsory military service, saunas, the media, wasabi, and exercise that work to cement the profile of the mogul who doesn’t fit the profile. And while the book contains the obligatory moments of Considered Expertise, Torvalds serves up his thoughts on Unix, leadership, intellectual property, kernel design and the future of technology with a healthy awareness of how silly it is to assume the mantle of authority. Just For Fun is Torvalds’ opportunity to hold forth as the God of free software and the prophet of a kinder, gentler marketplace. But he is having none of it. The result is riveting, purposeful writing about how one man lives, works, speaks and leads in a way that is fun for all – except, perhaps, Bill Gates.