JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR TA-NEHISI COATES was just awarded a MacArthur Fellowship of $625,000 (no strings attached) to pursue his writing or other artistic goals. I've been following Coates for years, back when he was a guest blogger on some general interest sites, and I first mentioned him in this column more than five years ago.
Coates's work spoke to me because he combines memoir with his intellectual curiosity about a broad set of interests. Early in his career, he used the essay form to not only "think about thinking" but to record his personal intellectual journey. It was inspiring and made me remember past intellectual heroes I read in my teens and 20s.
Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman's memoir, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, opened some of the adult world to me when I was in high school. Feynman, a brilliant scientist, was just as compelling when talking about how to pick locks as when discussing how to paint and to play the bongos. His constant pursuit of something new and interesting seemed the kind of life worth living.
Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, while not a memoir, is a beautiful, yearning exploration of the self. This quotation from Percy's book sums up what I was feeling at the time:
One of the peculiar ironies of being a human self in the Cosmos: A stranger approaching you in the...