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Cary Brunswick

August 18, 2012

A few titles to help answer the deep questions

I've had a copy of Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations" in my library for about 40 years now, and only one person has ever borrowed it. That person is not only an avid reader and book lover, but also someone who seeks out specific titles and authors with both passion and discipline.

That person, Richard Lowenstein, of Oneonta, this week is offering his choices for the handful of books he might recommend to young people who are looking for even more life lessons than they might obtain from their high school literature assignments.

I have known Rick, as he is better known, for only about five years, and one of our major interests in common is serious books. Not beach novels or best sellers, but authors who explore the "buzzing, blooming confusion" about the human condition, whether in fiction or prose.

Any day, I could get a call asking if have "The Life of a Useless Man" by Maxim Gorky, or perhaps A.J. Ayer's "Language, Logic and God," or Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast."

Lowenstein says he was born in New York City and grew up in Westchester County, graduating from high school there in 1962. "So I am essentially a child of the 1950s, a very different era from our present one," he noted.

Regardless, he said he assumes "that high school students of today suffer the same confusions high school students did back then." However, he acknowledges that he likely doesn't understand "how the social media, media-pervasive society of the modern era has afflicted the minds of present-day children turning adults."

I wouldn't necessarily call Rick a neo-Luddite, because I don't believe he is radically opposed to our modern high-tech, computerized world. But he personally has no use for the Internet, cell phones or computers. If he were a writer, I'm not even sure he would use one of those old-fashioned contraptions called typewriters.

Concerning our "brave new world," he said his "skeptical nature is not convinced it is particularly for the good, but, be that as it may, it is the world in which our kids are growing."

So, it makes sense that Lowenstein would provide a teen reading list that does not include up-to-date titles, though some clearly are from the 20th century.

"In choosing the books, and they are not modern, I have tried to present somewhat unusual perspectives and yet choose books that still have literary merit," he said.

Surprisingly perhaps, or maybe not, Lowenstein's first choice, and he knew it had already been listed (in May by David Bachner), "is such a fine one that I must use it as well."

We're referring to W. Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge," published in 1944 at age 70. "The book gives an unusual perspective on the events of the period after 1929," Lowenstein said.

The English author is best known, of course, for an earlier autobiographical novel, "Of Human Bondage."

"My second choice is perhaps a bit obscure," Lowenstein said in introducing "A High Wind in Jamaica," published in 1928, by Richard Hughes, another English writer. "The book gives an alternate perspective to the better-known `Lord of the Flies.'

"In this book," he said, "children also find themselves in their own little society but rather than assuming they turn into monstrous little adults it assumes children live in their own world, a world different from and somewhat impenetrable to adults."

Lowenstein's next pick was one of my "Top 15" selections, so I was pleased to see that "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" earned a spot on his short list.

"The life and changes Malcolm X went through show a great deal about the black experience in America," he said, especially during the 1940s through the early 1960s.

"Billy Budd, Sailor" by Herman Melville is Lowenstein's fourth choice, because "it speaks to the question of good and evil in a subtle and very effective manner."

Melville, a 19th-century American writer, is perhaps best known for "Moby Dick," which was written about four decades before "Billy Budd." The latter work was left unfinished when Melville died in 1891, and the manuscripts were found years later, revised and published.

Lowenstein returns to England for his final author, George Orwell, "for a perspective on society from someone who was a constant and very effective critic of the received wisdom of his or any other day of the modern era."

He recommends the short story "Shooting an Elephant," based on Orwell's experience as a policeman in Burma, and "Down and Out in Paris and London," a novel about his living among the lower working classes from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s.

Happy reading, and don't worry if you start feeling confused.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor of He can be reached at

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