MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Defining the self and figuring out who we are, for most of us, it's a lifelong quest. Author and astrophysicist, Adam Frank, suggests a book now that he says might help in that quest. It's called "Lost In The Cosmos," and he recommends it for our series, You Must Read This, where authors talk about a book they love.
ADAM FRANK: I don't read self-help books. My self seems to need so much help that 200 pages of advice and end-of-chapter exercises miss the core of my dilemma. The real question keeping me up at night is: What the hell is a self anyway? How did I get one and why is it so desperate for answers?
There is one book that begins to answer these questions and I'm happy to pass it on. Walker Percy's "Lost In The Cosmos" is subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book." And while Percy keeps his tongue held firmly in cheek, his goal is to help in the most universal sense. He knows we are lost. Why it is possible, he asks, to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula, which is 6,000 light years away, than you presently know about yourself even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life?
If you think about it, he's right. Every day we wake up and every day we're forced to schlep ourselves around. We shop, take the kids to Kung Fu, we stand in line at the DMV. But through it all, we're stuck in the dark about who we are and it makes everyone a little crazy. We have ways of coping. We can, for example, seek status, as in my self is better than yours.
Or we can hide behind what we own: a Stella McCartney dress, an expensive fixed-gear bike. But Percy obliterates all those with sly humor. He shows us these identities that we invent are just temporary definitions used to pin ourselves down: Democrat, Republican, Christian, Atheist, Mother, Father, Me. Each is just a symbol used to ward off a deeper mystery.
So what should we do? What else can we do when we find ourselves naked and with no direction home? Open yourself entirely. Offer up these hollow selves to the glorious mystery which isn't going away even if we want it to.
BLOCK: "Lost In The Cosmos," by Walker Percy is recommended by Adam Frank. His most recent book is called "About Time: Cosmology and Culture At The Twilight Of The Big Bang." You can find more recommendations for the best books of 2012 at our website, NPR.org/bestbooks.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.