Commonplace Book: The Books We Read as Teenagers

More commonplace book entries from the recent LRB (an exceptional issue, even by their high standard).

This bit from Adam Phillips “Against Self-Criticism

"Donquixote". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donquixote.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Donquixote.JPG

“Don Quixote” by Picasso. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donquixote.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Donquixote.JPG

The books we read in adolescence often have an extraordinary effect on our lives. They are, among other things, an attempt at regime change. In Freud’s language we could say that we free ourselves of our parents’ ideals for us by using the available culture to make up our own ego-ideals, to evolve a sense of our own affinities beyond the family, to speak a language that is more our own. In the self-fashioning of adolescence, books (or music or films) begin really to take, to acquire a subtle but far-reaching effect that lasts throughout a person’s life. We should, therefore, take seriously Freud’s adolescent passion for Don Quixote, a story about a ‘madman’ – as he is frequently referred to in the book – whose life is eventually entirely formed by his reading, in his case the reading of chivalric romances. He is a man who inhabits, lives in and through, the fictions about knights errant that he has consumed, a fictional character who makes himself out of fictional characters.

Rings true to me that what you do in those years has a resonance that lasts (although the ability to respond with such intensity does fade, on the whole a relief, I’m glad not to be undone by a song or a poem any more.)  My adolescent self was formed by a hodgepodge of often not very great music or books (I was in love with Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which, though fun, is hardly Cervantes) but the idea of fashioning yourself out of those materials does seem part of what that age is about, and perhaps why it’s so unavoidable that you always measure the music (poetry, art…) that you encounter later against the template set by that ardent first discovery.

Phillips goes on to make a remarkable point about what Don Q means in the context of Freud’s theory, with the advice that we might all be a little more easy going and conversational with our super-ego.

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