Books That Shaped Our Lives

Pamela Johnston, Assistant Professor of History

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham

 

I first read The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham when I was in my early twenties, deciding what I was going to do after I got out of the Army. It had a powerful effect on how I thought about the life of the mind that has persisted to this day. In fact, I think it is not too extreme to say that my choice of profession has much to do with the influence of this book.

It is the story of an extraordinary person, Larry Darrell, who returns from a stint as a fighter pilot in WWI and chooses to defy the conventions of his time: to get the “right” job, to marry the “right” person, in short, to lead an ordinary life. Instead, he embarks on an odyssey of discovery, reading, living on a mere pittance, taking menial jobs, and traveling the world in a search for truth and the deeper meaning of life. His story is told through his interactions with Maugham, the narrator, who as a somewhat disinterested party is able to comment on the effect that Larry has on the lives of others, most notably Larry’s ex-fiancée, Isabel Maturin, who remains deeply in love with him, and Sophie, a childhood friend whom Larry tries to save from a life of debauchery and despair. Along the way we meet the lovable snob Elliot Templeton, who in his desperate desire to make his mark on Paris society stands as a foil to Larry’s complete indifference to social convention.

For me, the power of Larry’s story is that he shows how you can still pursue truth, whether you are a farm laborer or a coal miner. As Maugham puts it, “He is without ambition and he has no desire for fame, to become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than just himself. He is too modest to set himself up as an example to others; but it may be he thinks that a few uncertain souls, drawn to him like moths to a candle, will be brought in time to share his own glowing belief that ultimate satisfaction can only be found in the life of the spirit, and that by himself following with selflessness and renunciation the path of perfection he will serve as well as if he wrote books or addressed multitudes.”

I am no Larry Darrell, but as a teacher, my goal is to show my students that no matter where they end up, the life of the mind is not some abstract unattainable goal, but a way of living one’s life every day, intentionally.