I encountered this book when I was 18. It was one of the three books about feeling different that I consider transformative in my early years. The other two being “The Fountainhead” and “Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.
The Outsider entered my psyche with the feeling of awakening to a knowledge that had been hidden. It introduced me to Colin Wilson who became a literary touchstone for decades to come and presented what my 19-year-old mind craved, acknowledgment and celebration of feeling different.
The Outsider was published in 1956. It opens with the sentence “The outsider is a hole-in-the-wall man” and goes on to offer several literary examples of being someone outside looking in. Themes of alienation, confusion, the existentialist angst, etc. are all treated with the same perspective of feeling not quite at home in the larger culture.
Colin Wilson’s debut on the literary scene marked one of the opening notes of the cultural revolution of the sixties. Wilson celebrated the misfit not as a figure be “fixed” and reintegrated into society, but as a lone journeyer who often had a stirring artistic, political, or spiritual innovation to convey to society.
Wilson lived this book as much as writing it. As an impoverished 23-year-old, the Englishman slept in a tent in a London park so that he could be free of material demands to dedicate himself fully to his study. When The Outsider appeared in 1956, it became a sensation among both critics and beats, who formed the vanguard of the dawning Aquarian Age.
In Wilson’s epic exploration of mystics, visionaries, literary pioneers, political troublemakers, and rule breakers of all sorts, he evoked a new kind of heroism, which changed how we view ourselves and our purpose in life.
Looking back over the decades I can still sense the effect of this book on my subsequent reading choices and intellectual explorations. Interestingly, while the themes of the book are essentially that of being alone, the experience of the book provides a sense of camaraderie with others who consider themselves outsiders. Can we say irony?!