If This Is A Man – Primo Levi
The first of Levi’s works concerning his time during the Second World War, this stands as the most poignant reminder of the Holocaust by a man whose delicate poise does credit to all who lost their lives during the period. The title itself, with the cryptically included ‘If’, suggests that this portrait will be one of inhuman desperation. Autobiographical in content, the work follows Levi from his arrest as an anti-fascist in Italy, through his incarceration at Auschwitz, to the liberation of the camp in 1945. Though he spends less than a year within the concentration camp, it feels like a lifetime of misery into which he is plunged.
Two things are notable about this account that makes its stand out against others on this subject: the first is his honesty; the second is his guilt. The will to live is presented in un-romanticized terms, with descriptions of how inmates were forced to steal from one another in order to survive on the scant rations provided. It is a world in which the bonds of humanity, even between fellow sufferers, are pushed to the limits. However, it is his refusal to stray from the tone of dignified mourning, that makes this essential reading. When reading Levi’s account, we long to vent our own anger and sorrow vicariously through the figure of the author but, at every point, we are denied. Levi displays no anger, only guilt; a guilt of survival when so many others died. This is the most harrowing feature of the book, and one to which we, as readers, can never reconcile ourselves.
The Flea – John Donne
It may seem strange to take just a single poem and place it amongst my selection of five pieces of essential reading. One might understand it if I had taken a huge tome, such as Paradise Lost, or a collection of great works, such as Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but a single poem of only twenty-seven lines? Let me explain myself. This poem is, for me, one of the greatest examples of an often over-looked pairing in literature, which, nevertheless, is ever present in quotidian life: love and humour.
Within the poem, the speaker argues to his love that considering a flea has bitten them each, thus mingling their bloods, there would be no harm in taking such congress further. The opening four lines read:
‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.’
The sincerity of his plea matched with the playful rhyme combinations of ‘me’, ‘thee’ and ‘flea’, creates a platform for true literary wit – a feature far too often ignored. This poem is deliberately playful, setting up its conceit for the pleasure of both reader and author. I include it as a personal favourite, and to suggest that enjoyment of its lightness is as essential to human existence as a contemplation of its darkness.
Why I am Not a Christian – Bertrand Russell
Some might consider the title of Russell’s philosophical work provocative, but I believe that such an approach is far too often taken by those who prefer to burn books rather than read them. I include this work amongst my list, not only for what it may teach us about organized religion, but more importantly about the necessity to continually question deeply ingrained beliefs. The use of logic to both present religious arguments and then refute them is wonderfully wrought; however, we must remember that the title presents us with a subjective view and that Russell’s criticism is of institutions rather than individuals.
In discussing religion itself, Russell asserts that ‘Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear’. His solution is one that I believe humanity could learn from, based upon learning and progression: ‘A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men’. If man is to create such a world then it is through reading and learned discussion that this shall be achieved.
W. J. Humphries
William is currently studying for a BA Hons. in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. He writes for a number of print magazines, ranging on subjects from poetry to fashion to art. Examples of his work for the Oxford Fashion Society – where he writes a column on fashion photography – can be found at www.oxfordfashionsociety.blogspot.co.uk/p/behind-lens.html . In 2012 Humphries founded Footfall – a Poetry and Music magazine for aspiring and established writers – for which he is both editor and contributor.
To contact Humphries please email him at email@example.com.