The novel tells the story of Humbert Humbert, Lolita, the girl he travels the country with, and the mysterious Quilty, a man who is on their trail. Or is he? The piece reads in three parts. One part paean to language, two parts mystery, and three parts obsession. I suggest reading the novel with The Annotated Lolita: Revised and Updated at your side. You’ll need it to look up odd flower names, arcane historical references, linguistic puzzles, and Lepidoptera. Good luck.
When I read it I was a junior in college on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. What can I say? I love to mix the sacred with the profane. Lolita is the best book to read to help one overcome adolescence, so you may want to save it for last, but it is the best book of the lot. So, I place it first.
To tap into the early recesses of intellectual history, one has to go to the beginnings. Hence Heraclitus. Officially he is part of the philosophical gang that came pre to the Socratics, namely the Pre-Socratics. One cannot step in the same river twice seems innocent enough a fragment to leave behind extant for the historical archive, but for some reason, Heraclitus’s image of a river flowing has “become” the philosophical metaphor for becoming. Maybe Heraclitus enjoyed fly fishing? Heraclitus is an intellectual workout. The key to reading his fragments is to free your mind from the commonsense notion that being is something static and constant.
When I read the fragments of Heraclitus, I was still in love with the notion of the One, which is a very adolescent ideal. Heraclitus helped me to appreciate for the first time the idea, “go with the flow.”
Nota bene: the Kirk translation is the best.
To read O’Connor is to read an author whose every sentence, every word, sends a sizzling image to the brain to ponder and to be horrified. There is not one O’Connor story I do not find to be both shockingly perverse and morally rich. O’Connor’s stories deal with the macabre and the profane as a way, it seems, to express concerns about religion and secularity, good and evil, and the fate of humanity itself. Violence is her oft-used trope. After reading O’Connor, the concept of salvation will haunt you for the rest of your days. Also, women with prosthetic legs and bible salesman will forever displease your previously held sensibilities about such folk. And you will never be able to utter the phrase, "good country people" without a hint of sarcasm. I recommend reading her stories in tandem with her collection of letters, bound together in a volume entitled The Habit of Being.
When I first read O’Connor it was for a Freshman Literature Survey course. I was eighteen, but still adolescent. We read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and I was hooked, when after reading the story, the professor had us re-read the first paragraph and I was amazed at how much foreshadowing I had missed on a first read. Hint hint.
Jorge Luis Borges
To read Borges is like reading an ancient, lost manuscript. Borges is pure intellectual imagination. He takes classical philosophical problems and fictionalizes the premises. For example, in one story he imagines a library that can hold all knowledge but still remains inaccessible to truth. In another story, he imagines what it would be like to have a mind that records every empirical observation precisely. In another story, taken from Greek mythology, Borges reinvents the trope of the hero. To read Borges is to read an author who marries the best of metaphysics with the best of laconic prose. If you love Greek mythology and made-up histories, Borges will be fun.
When I read Borges for the first time, I was still an adolescent struck by the idea of absolute truth. Borges, in one read, made me reconsider if obtaining absolute truth was even possible -- or necessary.
Myth of Sisyphus
It may feel a bit off-putting to read a book that begins with whether or not one should kill himself or not, but this is exactly how this book begins. Camus’s text is very slim. The text is more of an essay than a book. Camus has the reader consider the ultimate question. Should I kill myself or not? For Camus, this is the only philosophical question worth asking.
When I read this book at thirteen, it helped me to postulate a way to gain meaning in the world without dependence on God or religion.