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The most influential book in my life may be one I never read completely and never understood fully. Until I saw it again on a library bookshelf, I had forgotten that it existed, 18 years after I last held a copy in my hands.
I was already in a reminiscent mood that December day, having returned to the University of Toronto, where I received my PhD in history in 2015. That achievement felt inevitable, following a lifelong passion for history. Although I left academia after graduating, I’ve since published a book, and am now doing research on a fraudulent Nazi spymaster.
I was heading to the main library to see if I could still read German; unfortunately, the book I needed had not been translated into English. I strolled around the 10th floor at Robarts Library looking for my call number. Elevator pings and occasional footsteps echoed around the concrete walls; motion-sensor lights clicked when someone entered a row. I found my stack and tilted my head sideways, reading the spines until I came across the correct book, in precisely the right spot – I had only once not been able to find a checked-in item at this library.
Pulling out the volume, I glanced around the other shelves in the area. And then I saw it: Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, by Peter Viereck. Seeing that spine almost knocked me sideways, as a rush of memories flooded in.
The book reminded me that nothing had been inevitable: my doctorate was not a logical culminating point. I had stumbled toward it blindly and, had I not been loaned Metapolitics when I was in the 11th grade, I could have wandered somewhere worse. It is odd, I admit, that a book on Nazi intellectual history would improve a wayward teenager, but in 2000-2001 I was floundering. Badly. I failed math: I’d stopped doing any math assignments because they were too much work. I was failing chemistry until I barely managed to pass the exam. I didn’t bother taking biology or physics. Even my 10th-grade history mark was a C. I never studied. Always a loner, I was utterly depressed, sitting in my room every evening watching reruns of Frasier and Murphy Brown, playing games of Risk in which I controlled all six armies.
I had not always been a bad student. Elementary school was a breeze. Too much so. A highly fluent reader, adept with numbers, I never had to try. But I wasn’t given more challenging work; I just got to sit aside and read if I was done classwork early. It was great fun at the time, but by high school I was unprepared: I had terrible work habits, no sense of organization, no idea of how to study. Of course, most teenagers have these flaws, but I was clueless. I completely shut down. I had no idea of what was necessary to get into a university or college. No teacher seemed interested, and neither did my parents: Still living off the golden glow of my receding elementary school achievements, they were shocked nearly comatose by the suddenly appalling report cards.
I pulled myself together enough to sign up for a night school math course. Only general math, though: I wasn’t going to contend with the advanced course again.
I was also in a class at my own school called Western Civilization, which genuinely excited me. The teacher was named Mr. Massey, an older man who was kind, knowledgeable, witty and cared what his students thought. We had a wonderful, 60-minute class debate on the pros and cons of a society remaining as a hunter-gatherer group, or settling down as sedentary agriculturalists. His course made me care again. I did well on his assignments, even flirting with A+ territory for my final grade. Mr. Massey took an interest in my work and, after I wrote an essay on Nazi Germany, he handed me the book Metapolitics. I still have no idea if the book was good or bad, but it was a pivotal moment.
To me, Mr. Massey was an absolute historical authority who gave me a serious adult book on political philosophy – and he wanted to know what I thought of it. I did my best to plow through it for the next couple of weeks, but I was not yet educated enough – nor was I able to think clearly enough – to really understand it. Still, I talked with him one afternoon about what little I comprehended. When I was about to leave, he said goodbye and remarked that, “You are the kind of student who makes me wish I wasn’t retiring.”
He did retire at the end of that year. His picture and a lengthy article appeared in the local newspaper. I never saw or spoke with him after the last day of school that June. I was still not the best high-school student; I would never be a STEM poster boy. But I decided to go to university and study history. I had no idea what I would do with it, but it didn’t matter. When Mr. Massey took me seriously, I started to take myself more seriously. I wanted to achieve something academically.
When I began my first year as an undergraduate, I was so nervous – given my relatively recent string of catastrophes – that some switch inside of me flipped. I got organized, studied and focused on my work: by the end of the year, I had all As or A minuses. And I kept going until, almost in a fit of absence of mind, I got a PhD.
Higher learning was never destined to be, but it turned out to be the finest route I could have taken with my life. When, at 35, I saw that book for the first time since I was 17, I felt all the upset of that turbulent year again. More importantly, I realized that without Mr. Massey, I wouldn’t have returned to the winding path that began in Grade 1 when I checked out my first book of history at the library. It was called A Picture History of Italy. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever happen across that one at the university library.
Brett Lintott lives in Hamilton.
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