Germs is about first things, the seeds from which a life grows, as well as about the illnesses it incurs, the damage it sustains. Written at the end of his life by Richard Wollheim, one of the major philosophers of the late twentieth century, the book is not the usual story of growing up and getting on but a brilliant recovery and evocation of childhood consciousness and unconsciousness, an eerily precise rendering of that primitive, formative world we all come from in which we do not know either the world or ourselves for sure, and things--houses, clothes, meals, parents--loom large around us, as indispensable as they are out of our control.
In his radiant masterpiece Germs, Richard Wollheim presents us with a childhood that is understood [...] as a period to be survived only by stratagems ... Germs is the book Wollheim considered his best, and we can safely trust his judgment in the matter; certainly it is his most radically conceived and passionately executed work. It is by turns exquisite, appalling, mysterious, and very, very funny.
Wollheim is a great noticer and maker of lists—the passage about his father’s possessions is exemplary—and another of Germs’s frequent pleasures comes from its psychogeography of suburbanism in the early days of that phenomenon ... Wollheim’s titular 'germs' are mainly intended to mean seeds, the beginnings of a growth process. He leaves it to the reader to state the obvious: that the germs that grew into the freedom-loving, art-loving philosopher began with other literal germs ... We have our own germs. Even so, Wollheim’s effort to notice as much as possible while judging rarely can still be a fruitful example, and inoculating against all kinds of routine drill.
Germs charts the growth of a self and a sensibility ... Wollheim’s extravagantly fussy, exceedingly queer syntax resembles that of Henry James, on whom he wrote ... Even when reinhabiting the nightmarish aspects of childhood, though, Wollheim’s writing is punctilious. His sentences are worked, his rhythms perfectly pitched; he’s a stickler for rectitude in prose and in life. He fashions a self, or comes to understand the self he has been fashioning all along, through fashioning his prose.