At some point in my senior year of high school I told my parents that I wanted to go to college, and they shrugged. It wasn’t a choice they had much sympathy with, and they were not inclined to offer any financial support — indeed, they were probably unable: my mother’s job was not a high-paying one and my father worked irregularly. Since none of us knew anything about scholarships or student loans, we ultimately agreed that if I paid for my university education they would allow me to continue living at home for a while longer. This was a good thing for me, since I was only sixteen.
Tuition at the University of Alabama at Birmingham was low enough that I could work in a bookstore about 25 hours a week — full-time during breaks and over the summer — and keep my head above water, but I was always tired, and after a while my grades started to slip. So I took a year away from school and just worked at the bookstore and read. In those days I wrote the title of every book I read in small neat letters in the squares of a Sierra Club Calendar, which I would pick up in early January when the unsold calendars were deeply discounted, and at the end of my year away from school I counted them up and discovered that I had read 250 books.
One of the writers I discovered that year was Colin Wilson, England’s very own self-educated bohemian existentialist, who has just died at the age of 82. Much of the atmosphere of Wilson’s life and writing is captured in the photograph above, and when I encountered that atmosphere I (briefly) found it intoxicating. Wilson’s interest in the occult led me to other occult writers — Carlos Casteñeda, predictably enough in that period, but also some weirder and more obscure figures like the so-called T. Lobsang Rampa — but all that left me untouched. Though I am a convinced Christian, I do not have a religious or even a “spiritual” temperament, for which, when I think about what I was reading then, I am thankful. Nor could I take seriously Wilson’s image of himself as a man who radiated such powerful psycho-sexual energy that women (like the woman on the sofa in the photo above, I suppose) were helpless before him.
But it was the Wilson who slept in parks at night and read all day in the British Library that captured my imagination. Wilson’s first and most famous book was called The Outsider, and like him I felt myself an outsider to the life of the mind: given my family’s relative poverty and indifference to education, and given what seemed to me the dreary dutifulness of most of my professors, I had no chance of intellectual achievement unless I taught myself, and since I had few principles by which I might be guided, I fell back on the one that I knew: omnivorous reading.
I don’t remember one word or one thought from the Colin Wilson books I read that year, but it may be that, for all his blustery self-assertion, his under-educated overconfidence, he had more influence on my intellectual formation than I know. Certainly I have retained all my life a sense of outsidedness to the institutions I have participated in, and a somewhat perverse determination to take my own path, especially when it’s one that wiser and more prudent people assure me I should not take. Maybe I need to thank Colin Wilson for that.