Sunday, January 22, 2012

Made of Paper: Books of Early Adolescence

By the time I entered junior high school, I had developed the habit of reading by the author. I’d find an author I liked and then look for all of his (they were pretty much all men) works. I began to enjoy science fiction. The berserker stories of Fred Saberhagen , about the desperate fight of humans against self-replicating robot war machines gone out of control, were among the fictions that made the biggest impression. I also liked reading collections of stories from ancient mythology, especially Norse mythology.  This combination predisposed me for a discovery many other young people were making at the time, the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien has suffered the fate of many “cult” writers; the excessive esteem of fans and the excessive contempt of critics reacting against popularity. When as an adult I read his books to my daughter, I could see his imperfections. Notably, his erudition led him to mimic and mix a variety of literary forms (the folk tale, the fairy story, the myth, and the heroic epic) that don’t always fit well together in a single narrative. But I would still include his books on any list of general recommended readings. The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume in his trilogy, has always seemed to me his best work because of his successful evocation of the relationship among the adventuring hobbits facing a dangerous world.

About the age of fourteen, I grew more interested in social and political issues. Here, I step into perilous territory because I have to acknowledge that Ayn Rand was a big influence on me at this time. If Tolkien has supporters and detractors, Rand has devotees and denouncers. I don’t fall into either camp. The clarity of her reasoning attracted me, but I gradually came to disagree with some aspects of her perspective. Her ideals of human behavior allowed only Howard Roark-type supermen and weak, despicable cheats. As I thought more about her work, I could not see that this left any room for real human beings. She did not, in other words, have a grasp of psychological complexity or an appreciation for people, as opposed to abstract ideals. But I did not altogether reject Rand. I accepted and still accept her recognition of the importance of the individual human ego. Since the social world is composed of selves and relationships among selves, a demand that we be “selfless” is a demand for a society without people.  The refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of rational self-interest is more likely to create hypocrites than saints.

Also at fourteen, I found two books in the public library that exercised a great, if not entirely healthy, influence on me. One of these was The Penal Colony : Stories and Short Pieces, by Franz Kafka. I still think of Kafka as more of a short story writer than a novelist, although I liked The Castle, The Trial, and Amerika, which I read after the stories (I think in that order).  I say the influence was not necessarily healthy because reading Kafka contributed to a tendency toward introversion and self-absorptiion. The tales I liked best, “The Burrow” and “The Hunger Artist” may have been particularly notable for the sense of withdrawal from the external. The other book that I found in the library may have made an even greater contribution in this direction. This was the Discourse on Method, by Rene Descartes.  I was impressed by the author’s program of accepting nothing as true but what could be indubitably proven. His method, though, was to erase everything outside of himself and turn to his own thought as the only sure proof of reality. It was a useful exercise in the history of philosophy, but doubting everything and turning inward was probably not the best psychological path for a teenager inclined toward solipsism.
I did follow some of the more standard authors. It is unfair that Thomas Wolfe has fallen into the category of writers for adolescents. I think he deserves to be appreciated as a major American writer for readers of all ages. But Wolfe’s concentration on fictionalized autobiography of his own youth does give him a special appeal for the young. I loved his expansiveness and garrulity. Since I came from a southern family that still had close links to the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, Wolfe’s novelistic recollections struck familiar notes for me.

I can remember taking long walks to think about the ideas, events, and images in the books I was reading and becoming so lost in thought that I’d fall into a sort of trance. I’d look around and suddenly realize that I’d been walking for hours and that I was miles away from home.

1 comment:

  1. "She did not, in other words, have a grasp of psychological complexity or an appreciation for people, as opposed to abstract ideals."

    Philosophy, and ethics in particular, examine fundamentals. In the examination of human cognition and human action concrete particulars are the data used by philosophers that is thereby compiled and used to generalize to universal propositions. This is how Rand arrived at her conclusions about man's nature, virtue, and the necessary actions to lead a human life. It is by examining "real human beings" that Rand reached what is good for human beings and ideal (Roark, Galt) and what is evil (Toohey, James Taggart). No where does she deny that morally gray individuals exist. The distinction is between the descriptive v. the normative. The descriptive will tell you that people will compartmentalize their ideas, moral, and emotions. Whereas the normative will tell you that you should or should not compartmentalize. Rand was always clear on where she stood because she understood that in matters pertaining to life it is a question of either or. Speaking in terms of principles Rand said, "There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil."