A Review of Wilson’s “The Books in my Life”

This is a review of Colin Wilson’s The Books in My Life, published by Hampton Roads Publishing Company in 1998 and — to my surprise and delight — dedicated to me. I had met Colin three years earlier, on the memorable 17th of March, 1995.

THE BOOKS IN MY LIFE

Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.

311 pages, $15.95 USD

It is impossible to classify Colin Wilson as a writer. He has published something like one hundred books in his lifetime – on philosophy, literature, psychology, criminology, and the occult, primarily. Oh, yes, and there are a couple of dozen novels.

The one thing I can say about him with definite certainty is that, paradoxically to his output, hardly anyone reads him. I’ve met a few people who have heard of his first book, The Outsider, which catapulted him to a brief period of fame in 1956 at the age of 24. Until the critics took a dislike to this youthful upstart, that is. A few have heard of him as a writer on crime or mysticism. Fewer have actually read him.

Wilson has persevered, however, because he is one of those rare writers who writes out of a sheer enthusiasm for ideas. And despite the enormous range of topics he has written about, his entire body of work is unified by a group of themes, all pertaining to the present and future of consciousness and its role in society. This latest book is no exception.

The Books in My Life is the best book Wilson has written in many years. For some time, Wilson has chosen to focus on “New Age” themes, and while I recognize the connection between these and his earlier work, these books lack the breadth and appeal of his earlier works. Long-time readers of Wilson have also hungered for a return to the breathtaking philosophical speculations which he termed the “New Existentialism.” This book is a return to that wellspring out of which his best work has flowed. It is written as a memoir of the books which have influenced his thinking. His choices are no surprise: Shaw, Nietzsche, Sartre, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, and others whom he has been writing about for forty years. But this book is not a mere reiteration of his past writing. He now reflects on these authors with the experience of a lifetime behind him, and while he returns to many of the same motifs (freedom, sex, the fallacy of pessimism, and the power of imagination, for instance), he offers a number of fresh insights. He is also a firm believer in the value of genre fiction, and he intersperses sections on Sherlock Holmes, David Linsday, and children’s books among the literary heavyweights. The book is written in a conversational tone, with Wilson frequently relating the intellectual experience of his reading to the conditions of his life at the time. This offers the opportunity to feel the power of the books through the lens of the adolescent Wilson’s drive to find a meaning behind his (and perhaps everyone’s) melancholy teenage years.

But the real attraction of a book by Colin Wilson is always the ideas underlying it. He deserves to be read because he is one of the few thinkers in print today who is unafraid to transcend the fashionable pessimism of our age. He seeks to affirm the unexplored potentials of human life, and exposes, with penetrating clarity, many of the harmful assumptions on which many aspects of our culture are based. This examination is not performed using the academic jargon of many of our esteemed cultural critics – many of whom Wilson sees as being a part of the problem – but is founded upon a need to stay grounded in the realm of lived experience. As such, The Books in My Life offers an excellent introduction to the vision of a writer who stands outside the intellectual mainstream, not to stand above it, but to offer an honest perspective on the “big picture” of our culture. You may not agree with all of his conclusions, but you will find much to ponder.

— John Morgan

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