The Outsider ~ Colin Wilson

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This is a book from my TBR 2015 challenge pile. It has been sat on my bookshelf for years, so I was glad to finally get around to reading it.

Colin Wilson takes the theme of ‘the Outsider’ – one who feels separate and alienated from society – and tracks the use of this character through some of the greatest literature and the lives of artists, in the hope of learning more about the problems of the Outsider.

Reading this book, it was interesting to see how authors have characterised the outsider in different circumstances. Wilson considers the works of artists such as Kafka, Camus, Hemingway, Nijinsky, Hesse, Lawrence, Van Gogh and Dostoevsky, the teachings of the Buddha and George Gurdjieff. Curiously, the outsider in these works is almost always a male. Perhaps this is due to the entirely male authorship, though Wilson seemed to believe that outsiders are almost always male. I would not agree. My view is that women who might consider themselves outsiders, tend to make more effort to at least give the appearance of fitting in.

Wilson views the outsider as one who is less willing to put up with the futility of everyday life. They are often like trains ‘in danger of going off the rails’. They have questions for which they need to seek the answers to – and it is imperative that they do seek these answers if they are not to destroy themselves. Wilson speculates that it may be a question of perception. The outsider may perceive life differently, and that this is to their advantage if they can learn to perceive effectively:

“The Outsider’s problem amounts to a way of seeing the world that can be termed ‘pessimistic’… I have tried to argue that this pessimism is true and valid. It therefore discounts the humanistic ideals of ‘man rising on stepping stones of dead selves to higher things, etc.’, and criticizes philosophy by saying that there is no point in the philosopher’s trying to get to know the world if he doesn’t know himself. It says flatly that the ideal ‘objective philosophy’ will not be constructed by mere thinkers, but by men who combine the thinker, the poet and the man of action. The first question of philosophy is not ‘What is the Universe all about?’ but ‘What should we do with our lives?’; i.e. its aim is not a System that shall be intellectually consistent, but the salvation of the individual.”

This book was not a particularly easy read, though I  did enjoy the challenge. I did get the feeling as I was reading that Wilson was cherry picking the examples which best suited his particular theory of the Outsider, and could perhaps have been argued in any number of ways. In spite of this it was still an interesting and worthwhile read.

To Kill a Mockingbird ~ Harper Lee

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This is a book from my TBR 2015 challenge. A well-loved classic, particularly in the US, less so in the UK, that I had never read, but which was recommended to me by many people. I picked it up in a charity shop a few years ago and this month finally got the chance to read it. There is little I can say about it that hasn’t been said before, but my personal reaction was that I loved it.

I loved the way Harper Lee painted the characters, especially Scout and Jem and their antics, so clearly it was as if I had watched a film of them. You don’t feel like you are reading a book, so seamlessly does the author transition from one scene to the next. I was completely immersed. Even as if I had been there playing in the dust, snipping the tops of Mrs Dubose’s Camellias, or struggling along in the dark dressed as a joint of ham.

I could relate to the childhood pain and confusion at having to witness the often incomprehensible choices that humans make. Of learning to live in a world where bad things happen. But also where good things happen too. The value of community struck me – as well as its petty prejudices.

There are many miles in distance and time between the setting of this book and my life here in contemporary Britain. Despite this, To Kill a Mockingbird gets to the essence of the human condition in such a realistic and warm way, that I know it is a book that will stay with me for a very long time.

The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ Oscar Wilde

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This is another book from my TBR 2015 challenge. A secondhand Collector’s Library edition, it’s a beautiful little book that has been on my bookshelf a while.

It is a well-known and intriguing gothic tale based on the Faustian myth. In 19th century England, a young and handsome man, Dorian, has his portrait painted. He desires to stay forever as pure and beautiful as the man in the portrait.

“If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that — for that — I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”

As events unfold over time his immorality grows. He throws himself into a life of debauchery, art and pleasure, yet on the surface he remains as young looking and untouched as ever. The only evidence of the state of his soul is the portrait which, locked in a room in his house, reveals the horrifying reality.

While I enjoyed the story, I grew irritated by Oscar Wilde’s style. When I was younger I used to enjoy this kind of witticism in writing. His writing is clever and full of wise words, curious epigrams and sentences designed to shock, but I wonder if (like the character Lord Henry) he actually believes all that he says. I nearly gave up in chapter eleven when Wilde goes into intricate  and agonising detail about the excesses of decadence and overindulgence. It was boring, though perhaps this was Wilde’s point.

I did enjoy the films based on Oscar Wilde’s comedic plays The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, but I’ve had enough of 19th century England and its high society, for the time being anyway.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

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This is one of the books from my TBR pile which I finished a couple of weeks ago, and am finally getting around to creating a post about.

I have mixed views about this book. It is a gentle and helpful guide. It was also a long read, and a little too esoteric for me in places. I am interested in general Buddhist philosophy but have no desire to become a Buddhist myself. However, I got a lot out of reading this book none the less.

The book is separated into four main parts. The first deals with living. The Buddhist secret of dying well is first of all to learn to live well. There is some excellent information in this section especially insights on meditation and why we all would benefit from the practice.

“We are fragmented into so many different aspects. We don’t know who we really are, or what aspects of ourselves we should identify with or believe in. So many contradictory voices, dictates, and feelings fight for control over our inner lives that we find ourselves scattered everywhere, in all directions, leaving nobody at home.

Meditation, then, is bringing the mind home.”

The second section of the book is called ‘dying’. In our culture so little is said about the taboo subject of dying that it is a relief to read words that address this essential part of the human experience. Death is largely ignored by society. The dying are hidden out of sight and mind and the subject is swept under the carpet, until, when a loved one or we ourselves become terminally ill,  we are stunned into facing this most difficult part of our journey.

In my own life people I loved have died, both sudden and slow deaths. I was horribly ill-equipped to deal with the situations. When my grandmother was dying of breast cancer in hospital years ago, I am ashamed to say I ran out of the hospital in tears unable to face her pain and sickness. When my brother lay in a coma for nine days before his death I was lost in an ocean of fear and confusion. I was scared and naive and had no understanding of how to be with a person who is dying or how to cope once a person has gone. This is the normal state of things in the Western world. In the time since I have been grateful to be able to remedy this lack in some way by reading and learning about the process of death.

It is not morbid to want to learn about death, if anything it makes living richer. We more deeply appreciate what we have now, when we bravely face the fact that our lives do not last forever.

“Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity — but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our ‘biography’, our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards… It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?

Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn’t that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?”

The third section is on death and rebirth and focuses mainly on the Buddhist theories of what happens beyond death. I found this section difficult to follow and nearly gave up reading it altogether.

The final section is the conclusion, bringing together the previous sections and calling on readers to become a part of the ‘quiet revolution’ in the way we look at death and care for the dying. A revolution too, in fact, that will bring greater peace and compassion to the way we live and the way we care for the living.

I recommend this book if you are willing to keep an open mind and be enlightened by ideas that may be very different to the one’s you currently hold.

2015 TBR Challenge

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(I am transferring this post from my old blog to my new – apologies if you have read it before)

Did I mention that I’m a bookaholic? I usually read at least two books a week, mostly non-fiction. The problem is that my eyes are bigger than my brain and I beg, borrow and buy more books than I can possibly read.

Hence my ‘To Be Read’ pile runneth over. Out of the bookshelves and over the floor of my bedroom and living room.

So, I have decided to enter the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. A year-long challenge to read at least 12 books that have gathered dust on a bookshelf for over a year. Once read you write a post/review about each one and link back to your original post.

My 2015 TBR Pile Challenge List:

  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  3. Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
  4. Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss
  5. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. The Outsider by Colin Wilson
  8. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
  9. Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales
  10. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
  11. In Search of Lost Time  – Volume 1 Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
  12. The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco

My two alternatives in case I can’t make it through any of the above are –

  1. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  2. Decline and Fall  by Evelyn Waugh

There are monthly check-ins and mini-challenges along the way. So do pop over to roofbeamreader.com if you’re interested in joining in 🙂

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