I was read those books on the list of the 101 Greatest Books of the Western World by myself. I didn’t have any teacher trying to teach me. It was just me and the book, and because at the time these were the 101 Greatest Books of the Western World and not an ethnocentric list of works by dead white men, I just assumed these books were worth reading and might help me to understand what the hell was going on since I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety and confusion.
When I just couldn’t understand a book, I would just put it down and think, “I will get back to that later.” Since I was reading on my own, I didn’t feel any pressure, except as that arose from the desire to understand, to get it down as one might when preparing for a test or writing a paper for a class. And sometimes when I couldn’t understand, I would try to noodle through what I was reading by thinking about what I did know and had experienced or thought myself and was occasionally rewarded by having the author of whatever I was reading give me words to think something that had been floating around unarticulated on the edges of my consciousness. Yea, that’s it, I would think.
I also learned pretty quickly that when it came to the business of thinking and/or philosophizing, I was really a latecomer on the scene, and that most of the big thoughts I had were not new at all, but had been around for some time. Over all, I approached these works humbly. If I couldn’t understand something that was not the author’s fault; he was not too difficult or hard or depressing, as students like to say today when they are confronted with something that might exercise their brains a little. No, the problem, if any, was with me. I needed to try harder, to read again and again, until I had grasped the basic assumptions of the author. Maybe that’s why I liked the classic philosophers because usually their assumptions were there in the book and once you grasped them you could follow along.
I carried this attitude of non-judgmental reading—I suppose now people would say non-critical—at least into my first quarter of college. I remember well having been blown away by the Greeks, especially in the visual arts that I had not studied much on my own. So in my first in class essay for college, I wrote mostly about how I could feel at least that I didn’t really understand the Greeks. I knew I was taking a bit of a risk fessing up to my ignorance, but I had studied and to say why I felt I didn’t understand I had to write a bit about what I did. I wrote what I honestly felt and in this case was rewarded for my honesty; the professor gave me an A and said that with my enthusiasm and willingness to learn, I surely would.
Studying as I did on my own before college and later on my own when I was out of college and living in my parents’ basement, I developed the habits of an autodidact. This really didn’t help me much in college; because college is about being schooled so that one comes out speaking the lingo appropriate to a particular discipline. I remember a professor telling me when I was starting on my PhD dissertation, “Nick, you have got to decide whether you are in literature, political science, philosophy or psychology.”
And even at that late date in my “schooling,” I still asked myself, “Why, why must I decide.” I was clueless.