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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Unbodied by Books

I am unbodied by thy books, and thee, and in thy papers find my ecstasy.

— Henry Cornelius Agrippa

Your worldview
—your set of beliefs and assumptions about realityis bred in your teens, according to psychologists.

Mine were filled with the usual distractions—schoolwork, buddies, rock music, substances, girls, urban adventures—and books.

The four that more than any other formed my worldview were all written by men, and all in the 20th century. I can't say precisely why they made such a mark on me, but I'll describe the mark they made.

Portnoy's Complaint (Philip Roth, 1969). I was born in Newark, New Jersey (the novel's setting), so I just had to read what The New Yorker was labeling in 1969 "one of the dirtiest books ever published." Roth blew my 16-year-old mind. I learned from the novel the adult world wasn't too different than my own. Everyone felt childish. Everyone felt inadequate. Everyone felt guilty. Everyone felt trapped. If he didn't, he was a schmuck.

Catch-22 (Joseph Heller, 1961). A high-school English teacher assigned this novel. I still remember he called it "an existential picaresque." The novel showed me the system was a racket run by preening half-wits; the rules were cruel and absurd and made up by self-serving hustlers; and the good died young. I was 17, a year from the draft and a possible tour in Vietnam.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner, 1929). Another English teacher assigned Faulkner's family saga, considered by the author his personal favorite and by many other writers as the best American novel of the 20th century. The Sound and the Fury showed me at age 18 that myths, secrets and "family politics" can condemn you.

Being and Time (Martin Heidegger, 1927). I encountered Heidegger's masterwork in college. From it I learned in painstaking detail why we're so crazy, fragile and nervous: we're all bozos on this bus, and it's heading for a cliff. Being is time and time is finite, Heidegger makes clear. Or, as Samuel Beckett wrote, "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."

Which books formed your worldview?

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