The Turning Point

I’m a sucker for situations like the one Colin McGinn describes in this article in Prospect. People from what he calls ‘an academically disinclined background’ who get their minds awakened as adolescents, and develop and keep intellectual interests of some sort. I always find that setup tremendously moving.

There is for instance a beautiful bit in the movie ‘Gods and Monsters’ in which the director James Whale, played stunningly by Ian McKellen, ponders his own mysterious emergence from a grimly unaesthetic background. Where did he get all that imagination and love of beauty, he wonders, in McKellen’s beautiful reedy voice. ‘How did I get that way, where did it come from?’ He’s not denigrating his parents, merely wondering at his own oddity, and lucky escape.

The novelist Russell Banks was once in Seattle for a week as the feature of a library programme centered on one of his novels. He spent an afternoon at each of several branches of the library, talking to readers in a more protracted and informal way than the usual book tour. I went to one at which he talked about how he started to be a writer – and the fact that he came from a book-unaware, no (he corrected himself), a downright book-unfriendly household. So he didn’t discover books at all until quite late, until he was about twenty I think. But when he did – they were like water in the desert. I loved the passion with which he described the experience. And it made him a writer, and a similar one made McGinn a philosopher. One gets the same sort of story from reading of Lincoln’s self-education, and Frederick Douglass’ learning to read. The point is not at all about ‘success’ or rising in the world or making piles of money, it’s about quite another thing. One of my favourite plots.

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