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Books That Matter Most at: Four, Fourteen, Forty & Forever

August 15th, 2009 | Posted by Dick in Book

(This was written as a response to a challenge to list one book that is most important to the ages 4, 14, 40 & forever)

             Here are my selections but first a confession: (Actually three).  The works of each author are more than one book because the whole is greater than the part.

            Second, One of my selections is a repeat, since work important for adolescents is exponentially more important for ‘Forever,’ only for different reasons.

            Finally, I did not read any of these books until I was in ‘Forever.’  I am 72 and contemplating how the specific bundle of condensed energy which is myself, will soon be liberated into the universe.

            I grew up in a blue-collar family where no one read to me. My father subscribed to men’s magazines like True and Argosy. My mother read romance, ironically a magazine to which my writer wife sold an account of our honeymoon, years later.

            My only childhood books were cheap supermarket specials; fairy tales and bible stories till I discovered comic books, graduating from Disney to Mad and then Classics Illustrated which led me to the books they illustrated. This meant James Fenimore Cooper’s, ‘The Deerslayer,’ ‘Dicken’s, ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ and Hugo’s Les Miserable’s.’  Cooper was a magnificent storyteller and his works were illustrated by Howard Pyle.

            At age fourteen I was into horror, especially H.P. Lovecraft.  Age forty was the age of reason for me, especially Kant, Hegel and the American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce.  But reason failed me in my late forties.

            I became disillusioned with academia and became a prison guard in the federal system. Soon caught up in the anger that dripped from prison walls like blood in a slasher movie, I stopped reading.

            Fortunately, a prisoner tried to stick a shiv in my gut. Diagnosed with Post Trauma Stress Disorder, I was off for 3 months on stress leave. I began to read again. Back at work, I went on midnight cowboy shift where I could read between each walk on the ranges.

            I pursued reason in philosophy, science and mathematics to no avail, when a young man hung himself on Mother’s Day, leaving a note for his mother saying ‘I can’t be a good Christian.” Reason crumbled. Giving the kiss of life to cold, dead lips evokes the horror of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’

            My wife discovering that I was trying to get prisoners to kill me, made me see a psychologist who got me out on disability. Two years later I retired. But I brought the horror home. Then I discovered the seventeenth century philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza. My recovery began.

            So my selections are personal. At age 4 I recommend all of Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. Childhood is a time for wonder, explored in fantasy and imagination. But we have to grow up. Wonder gives way to the pursuit of goals that will make us agents in our own lives.

            Many of these goals are only fantasy and imagination, so adolescence at fourteen is the time to discuss another form of thinking, guided by the laws of nature and expressed in mathematics and science. At fourteen I recommend Euclid, ‘The thirteen ‘Books of the Elements,’ (translated with introduction and commentary by Sir Thomas L. Heath (in 3 volumes), Dover press.

            I specifically recommend this editor because Heath was a scholar of scholars and his commentary is invaluable in understanding ancient Greek thinking. Most people had to endure Euclid’s Geometry at adolescence, stripped of its charm and wonder, which only the original conveys.

            Three of the seminal thinkers in my life discovered Euclid at adolescence. He changed their lives and thinking, forever.  They are Baruch Spinoza, (whose writing is projaculated with Euclid), Charles Sanders Peirce, (the father of Semiotics) and George Boole, (the father of mathematical logic and the language of the computer).

            Euclid’s Elements can teach a fourteen year old the wonder and precise thinking of mathematics, which is the foundation of science. At age forty, Albert Camus says we wake up to the loss of wonder in our lives. We face a crisis of meaning. Sports cars, trophy wives and cheerleader moms, are some expressions of shallow responses to this dilemma.

            I faced a crisis of reason myself at 40. My mentor, Baruch Spinoza, faced just such a crisis in his twenties, not long after reading Euclid began to define his life. Because of Spinoza’s beliefs, he was deprived of his religion and any contact with his religion and family as well as his livelihood as a businessman. Spinoza said he was…” forced to seek a remedy…like a man suffering from a fatal illness.” He found this remedy in…” the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of nature.”

            So for age 40, I recommend, ‘The Collected Works of Spinoza, edited and translated by Edwin Curley (2 vols). I especially recommend Spinoza’s early works:  ‘Treatise of the Emendation, (Cure) of the Intellect’ and his ‘Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-being,’ where, influenced by Euclid, Spinoza developed his theory of knowledge, based on the differences between opinion, reason and science.

            Spinoza says reason is a stepping stone to a higher form of understanding which he called science, similar to what Aristotle described as …”reason dwelling in the soul.”

            In his masterpiece, ‘The Ethics,’ Spinoza deals specifically with the emotions of angst that especially overwhelm 40 year olds and how it can be overcome by being…”in harmony with the order of the whole of nature.”

            Forever, as should now be expected, is Euclid’s ‘Elements.’ But we return to this work not to learn how to think but rather to explore the wonder of thinking, which can be imparted to a 4, 14, and 40 year old, equally, but probably best to the 4 year old.

            Consider how Euclid began his Definitions: ‘A point is that which has no part.’ The wonder of the universe and our existence in it is caught in this definitions. I think it defines liberation. Whatever that is.

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