Thirty Years Later: The last self-help book.
March 18, 2013 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Percy and Sagan in the Cosmos: On the 30th anniversary of "The Last Self-Help Book." "Lost in the Cosmos is the most peculiar book of Percy's career, and in my judgment his finest achievement. I read it when it first appeared, and if you had asked me at the time whether I expected the book to be relevant in 30 years, I probably would have said no. It seemed so topical, so of its moment; and how long could that moment last? But re-reading it in preparation for this essay I saw how little it matters that many people today will know nothing or nearly nothing about Phil Donahue or Carl Sagan. Their immediate heirs are with us every day when we turn on the TV."

Bonus: June 1983 New York Times review of Lost in the Cosmos by fellow Louisianan Anatole Broyard.
See also a short preview of Walker Percy: A Documentary Film from a couple of years back.

Challenge: read this book on a subway or plane without some semi-deranged person beginning an uncomfortable conversation with you about popular self-help literature, which this book sort of isn't.
posted by resurrexit (15 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Dammit. I had just cleared out some room in my instapaper queue!
posted by DigDoug at 9:24 AM on March 18, 2013

Thanks for this. Lost in the Cosmos is one of my all-time favorites.
posted by Apropos of Something at 10:20 AM on March 18, 2013

This book really affected me when I was an undergraduate; I'm glad to see that someone thinks it still holds up, because I'd like to have my own students read it. An unfortunate side effect of the book (in my experience) is that it ruins all of Percy's other books for you, if you read it first. I later read The Moviegoer and a couple of others, and found them totally boring, as I kept thinking how all the ideas in them were so much better expressed in Lost in the Cosmos.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 10:32 AM on March 18, 2013

Percy is so, so fascinating and so, so maddening. First, y'all should read The Moviegoer, it's a minor classic of postwar literature. And Lost in the Cosmos is such a profoundly weird and disquieting book that I still find myself referring to it a decade after having read it, which is more than I can say for most books I've read before or since.

And yet: it's impossible to discuss Percy without discussing Catholicism, and specifically the rather conservative interpretation of Catholicism he subscribed to. Like Flannery O'Connor, Percy makes these incisive points about the dark underbelly of modernity, but puts such a hardliner Catholic spin on them that it would make Rick Santorum blush. He essentially argues in LitC that the modern conception of the self (the "autonomous self" as he puts it) leads directly to the atrocities of fascism and Communism. It gets even better in his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, in which he posits a world where secularist social engineers are trying to turn people into rutting animals--and also child molesters. Given the revelations about the Catholic Church in the last 20 years, there's an unintentional irony to much of Percy's later work that I can't help but think he would appreciate.
posted by Cash4Lead at 10:37 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Recently ran across this in my cartons of books to get rid of, removed it.
posted by thelonius at 10:46 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

so is it a self help book or is it a book of philosophy/anthropology/cultural criticism?
posted by spicynuts at 12:30 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

spicynuts: yes, definitely.
posted by resurrexit at 12:33 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

ha. fine. in other words it's no help at all for anyone who needs to live in the actual day to day world?
posted by spicynuts at 12:52 PM on March 18, 2013

It's a self-help book in the same sense that Pale Fire is a book of literary criticism. The structure superficially resembles self-help books of the time, with quizzes and so forth, but it also has odd questions like "Why is Carl Sagan so lonely?" as well as digressions on semiotics, short stories and other things you don't encounter in self-help lit.
posted by Cash4Lead at 1:04 PM on March 18, 2013

In a way it is a self-help book, but on the grand theoretical level in that it gets you asking fundamental questions about yourself and your place in a world of selves; it's not a day-by-day, Dr.-Leo-Marvin-baby-steps kind of self-help book. Like all good literature, it is, at its core, a self-help book because it helps one in understanding his self. What to do with that understanding is, however, not the focus of this book.

It's kind of impossible to describe which is why I resorted to being flip above.
posted by resurrexit at 1:47 PM on March 18, 2013

I read this the summer of 1984 when I was doing summer stock in Vermont, a production of Annie in which I played Rooster. It was one of the only paperbacks available at some bookstore I visited.

I think much of the semiotics went over my head at the time, but I still think it gave me a lot of questions to think about over that summer (during which I was unhappy much of the time.) This was clearly a case of the right book showing up in my life at exactly the right time.

METANOTE: The real Wittgenstein had a similar experience during World War I. He went to a bookshop and the only book available was Tolstoy's The Gospels In Brief, so he bought it. Throughout the war, his colleagues (who he hated) called him " the man with the book" or something like that.
posted by wittgenstein at 2:19 PM on March 18, 2013

This book was a huge deal to me in college. It's sort of philosophy from a different angle. Now I find Douglas Hofstadter scratches the same itch better.
posted by rikschell at 4:23 PM on March 18, 2013

in other words it's no help at all for anyone who needs to live in the actual day to day world?

It's got a pretty useful take on suicide, if that counts.
posted by mediareport at 4:24 PM on March 18, 2013

One of my all time favourite books. I never really understood the self-help angle, but I very much enjoyed his writing. It seems like something from a younger, ante-bellum 20th C. Time to read it again...
posted by sneebler at 6:37 PM on March 18, 2013

This is a favorite of mine. It's very funny in places, although doubtless some would find it simply boring, and more than a little melancholic.

For those who are curious about it, these two quotes give something of its flavor:

“Thought Experiment: Imagine that you are Johnny Carson and find yourself caught in an intolerable one-on-one conversation at a cocktail party from which there is no escape. Which of the two following events would you prefer to take place: (1) That the other person become more and more witty and charming, the music more beautiful, the scene transformed to a villa at Capri on the loveliest night of the year, while you find yourself more and more at a loss; or (2) that you are still in Beverly Hills and the chandeliers begin to rattle, a 7.5 Richter earthquake takes place, and presently you find yourself and the other person alive and well, and talking under a mound of rubble.

If your choice is (2), explain why it is possible for a true conversation to take place under the conditions of (2) but not (1).”


“Thought Experiment: You are a native of New York City, you live in New York, work in New York, travel about the city with no particular emotion except a mild boredom, unease, exasperation, and dislike especially for, say, Times Square and Brooklyn, and a longing for a Connecticut farmhouse. Later you become an astronaut and wander in space for years. You land on a strange, unexplored (you think) planet. There you find a road sign with an arrow, erected by a previous astronaut in the manner of GIs in World War II: 'Brooklyn 9.6 light-years.' Explain your emotion.”
posted by BigSky at 5:29 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

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