An assistant professor of religious studies, John Portmann (Grad ’95) most recently authored A History of Sin. His other books include Bad For Us: The Lure of Self-Harm and Sex and Heaven: Catholics in Bed and at Prayer.
What book have you read the most times?
It would take a psychiatrist to explain my ongoing attraction to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The book not only gives me the “aesthetic bliss” that Nabokov found in great works of literature, I probably identify with Pip because I am an adopted child who knows nothing of his biological parents. When first reading the book, I thrilled to the idea that an anonymous benefactor would start sending money and doing me favors. Beyond that, I find Miss Havisham one of the most memorable characters I have ever encountered in a book. Profoundly bitter that her fiancé jilted her the day of their wedding, she spends decades sitting in the living room of her house. Having grown up a competitive swimmer, I learned the importance of focusing on the goals you set. What impresses me about Miss Havisham is an astonishing ability to focus her emotions. What Miss Havisham wants is revenge, which is where Estelle comes in. Estelle, also adopted, is an exquisitely beautiful girl in Miss Havisham’s care. With the skill of a professional marksman, Estelle lures men everywhere to fall in love with her, then systematically spurns them.
In college I developed a haunting friendship with a varsity miler as physically attractive as Estelle is made out to be in the book. He was more or less estranged from his parents, and he seemed to my unprofessional eyes to be psychologically tortured. Imagine my surprise the day he told me over lunch that his favorite book was Great Expectations, and that he reads it at least twice a year. I hear through friends that the former miler is now a psychiatrist in Manhattan.
What neglected or lost classic would you recommend to readers?
I would recommend Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard. The novel takes place during a time of sweeping social change in Sicily. The lush visual images remain with me years after having read the rich prose. A penniless upstart triumphs over wealthier rivals from better families—all because of his good looks and charm. The descriptions of desire deserve special praise.
What are you reading now?
Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach—brilliant. Finally, we have a modern love story in which love is more important than sex!
Is there a particular book that you can say changed your life?
Raised in a traditional Catholic family, I grew up with a simplistic worldview. Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil liberated me from simplicity. I fell in love with philosophy in college (it became my major), and this is to my mind one of the most vital works of philosophy.
Where is your favorite place to read?
I find planes conducive to reading because I can’t wander off, as I am otherwise wont to do. If there’s one place I enjoy reading more than planes, though, it would be on my next-door-neighbor’s porch swing. I do like the feel of the old southern veranda, and I don’t have a swing.