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 -
“Don Quixote” by Picasso. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

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.

London Review of Books: Listening Room

Came across this letter in a recent LRB, which, despite showing a politician I mostly loathe in faintly positive light, does nail one Monty Pythonesque aspect of business life. The “difficult” person may actually be the one who is listening.

From the London Review of Books

Thatcher or Williams

Writing about Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher a while back, a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education who served both described the two as complete opposites of each other (LRB, 19 December 2013). When you entered Williams’s office she would welcome you and be very interested in what you had to say. As you talked she would put her head on one hand, look very hard at you and drink in every word. She could not have been more sympathetic. Thatcher, on the other hand, was never very pleased to see you and when you said, ‘Minister, there’s something I must say,’ she would reply: ‘Do you absolutely have to?’ She would listen with an angry look as you tried to persuade her of the folly of one of her policies and at the end she would shout that it was all rubbish and handbag you.

However, the next day you would notice that Thatcher had accepted some or all of your recommendations and now considered them her own, whereas Williams never altered what she had decided in the first place. She had given you tea and sympathy but had refused to hear a word: Thatcher had given you hell but had allowed your words to percolate through.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town


Dilbert has also noted a version of this phenomena, as is his wont:


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