Friday, September 26, 2008

Book Review: Pilgrim in the Ruins

I don't read many biographies, mostly because they have become so long that you need several weeks and a dedicated interest in the biographee to make it through one. There's also the occupational hazard that as soon as you devote so much of your life to reading one, you begin bringing it up for every conversation and your friends begin to get sick of it. So I needed a driving force to be able to make it through this 500-page bio of Walker Percy by Jay Tolson. Thankfully, I have an interest in Percy and don't quite understand him, I recently read two of his books, and I was on a long plane flight in which my Nintendo DS, my portable DVD player, and my laptop had all been commandeered and requisitioned away from me.
I'm in no position to evaluate the quality or accuracy of this bio relative to others, but it did provide the one thing I look for in a biography: it explained where the author's coming from and helped me understand how he chose to live his life. Walker Percy was orphaned young (having lost grandfather, father, and possibly mother to suicide), taken in by extended family, became an agnostic med student in New York, had to quit because of TB, went through a crisis, then converted to Roman Catholicism and married, settling down to become an author only around the middle of his life. He had to choose between pathology and psychiatry in med school, and his writing is best understood as a natural extension of his philosophy. (The alliteration is presumably unintentional.) The book is half done before his first novel is published: there may be a bit too much of the family history and not enough of the intellectual history, but I won't quibble. I'm impressed by the way Percy lived his life, and cared for his family, and lived a somewhat hermit-like existence but still spoke his ideas to the world around him. And that made the bio worth reading.
I need to find a way to get his writing in front of my senior pre-med students again. I've used it once but I'm sure this year he'll make a comeback in my class.

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