Named one of the best books of the year by Slate, Chicago Tribune, Entropy Magazine, and named one of the top 10 memoirs by Library Journal
Into the Wild meets Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—a lyrical memoir of a life changed in an instant and of the perilous beauty of searching for identity in solitude
On a clear May afternoon at the end of his junior year at Harvard, Howard Axelrod played a pick-up game of basketball. In a skirmish for a loose ball, a boy’s finger hooked behind Axelrod’s eyeball and left him permanently blinded in his right eye. A week later, he returned to the same dorm room, but to a different world. A world where nothing looked solid, where the distance between how people saw him and how he saw had widened into a gulf. Desperate for a sense of orientation he could trust, he retreated to a jerry-rigged house in the Vermont woods, where he lived without a computer or television, and largely without human contact, for two years. He needed to find, away from society’s pressures and rush, a sense of meaning that couldn’t be changed in an instant.
“Axelrod lyrically captures the essence of nature as he ponders his own self-worth and purpose in life. . . . In his first book, the author pushes beyond the boundaries and safety nets of the modern world and opens a doorway to feelings and experiences many long for but never encounter. His writing is a balm for world-weary souls. A vibrant, honest, and poetic account of how two years of solitude surrounded by nature changed a man forever.”
—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
“This elegant, questioning memoir details that moment and events prior to it, but mostly it achingly limns Axelrod’s two years living alone in a ramshackle cabin in the Vermont woods. His writing—whether describing an aspect of the wilderness around him or noting the “first lesson of solitude: everything really is your fault”—is lush and savory, exact in its intent to document just how Axelrod regained the ability to feel “that quiet of already belonging.” That he allows the reader to participate in this journey, from whatever distance, is more than a pleasure—it’s an honor. . . . Axelrod so adroitly and wisely re-creates the youngster he was that readers forget the passing of time, hearing only the voice of sorrow, longing, and determination. This memoir is a keeper, touching and eloquent, full of hard lessons learned. Readers will hope for more from first-time-author Axelrod.”
—Booklist, Starred Review
“A deeply felt and moving journey into no longer taking life, or the world around us, for granted.”
“Mr. Axelrod is clearly a gifted writer...The best thing about Mr. Axelrod’s frequently absorbing book is how idiosyncratic it feels; he is a unique presence on the page.”
—New York Times Daily Review
“What makes his book completely mesmerizing—besides his lovely prose, that is—is how exquisitely it balances between the poles of revelation and disintegration. Yet, refreshingly, he never repudiates the extremity of what he’s done. He’s come in from the woods with a strange tale to tell, but what makes you want to stop whatever you’re doing and listen to him is the frosty breath of the wild that still clings to his coat.”
—Slate Book Review
“The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude is an inherently absorbing and compelling read from beginning to end. Exceptionally well written, organized and presented, The Point of Vanishing is very highly recommended for both community and academic library Contemporary American Biography collections.”
—Midwest Book Review
“Axelrod is a master of metaphor, presenting familiar sights and sounds in unforgettable new ways. His writing is propulsive, unabashedly visionary, and strikingly fresh. This book will have you turning down pages, returning to sentences just to savor them, and reading passages aloud to anyone who will listen...The Point of Vanishing is a profoundly immersive narrative. One is struck again and again by the quality of the writing: by the vividness of its characters, by the accomplished lyricism of its language, by the brilliant acuity of its observations, and by the wisdom and humor that permeate its pages. What lingers most of all are Axelrod’s sharply wrought landscape descriptions. Setting is definitely an active character in this story...This memoir feels like a gift in a way that few books do...If you read it with an open heart, it has the power to change your life.”
“Axelrod weaves a lyrical, questioning narrative about his search for identity after a basketball game left him blind in one eye...Lush descriptions of sensory experiences as Axelrod discovers new ways of seeing the world, and himself, illuminate a journey of loss leading to insight with Axelrod finding the core of himself amid the pieces of who he had once been.”
“Occasionally a book comes along that has the power to transport readers to a place that many of us, I believe, wonder about, if only in the darkest moments of the night. Howard Axelrod’s memoir, The Point of Vanishing, was such a book for me...It is a brave book. It is also finely crafted, which is what enables it to carry the reader step by step into a dark but illuminating interior space...Axelrod skillfully plays the narrative of his time in the woods against a parallel backstory. The two threads ultimately merge, and he comes very close to passing right through some imagined bottom into another dark realm, one from which there very likely is no escape...Though The Point of Vanishing isn’t a map, it charts some of the territory that lies between the hard surfaces of the world and the murky depths in the shadows within all of us. The story is a beacon for those who have ever sensed such a realm.”
—Portland Press Herald
“Beautiful in its intensity, searing in its pain. It’s a breathtaking read.”
“Deeply alive and exciting and nuanced . . . all about what it means to see, and how we might ask ourselves to see differently—to live differently in our own bodies, and in the world . . . Powerful and ineffable, it feels like a blessing.”
—Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams
“Axelrod uses his seclusion in the natural solitary world of the North in winter to explore how we can have vision without really seeing. Well written with an honesty one can respect, The Point of Vanishing is more than an exploration of the human soul; it is a discovery of how our bodies can compensate and complement for our senses when we experience the partial loss of one.”
—Annie Philbrick, Bank Square Books
“This is a very real book, in bone-on-bone contact with the actual world. It made me think about my own life in new ways, and I think it will do the same for you.”
—Bill McKibben, author Deep Economy
“Blindness and insight are the twin subjects of Howard Axelrod’s intricate and beautiful memoir of his two years of solitude. . . . The unimportant falls away, in this book, and what comes closer is a luminous sense of the essential, the beautiful, the sacred, and the unspeakable.”
—Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love
“A sensitive and sensual book about seeing and feeling deeply; witty, wise, and beautifully written from beginning to end.”
—Geraldine Brooks, author of March
“Out of sudden and profound loss, Axelrod has drawn a haunting, tender memoir that grips like an emotional thriller. The Point of Vanishing is raw, exquisitely written, and full of poetic insights. This is a big book about big truths that matter to us all. It delivers a message of hope and strength, and reveals what is most human in our most unspoken yearning for something real, something true. In its subtle, deeply moving way, it will have you peering beneath the various faces you present to the world and encourage you to ask the most fundamental of questions: who am I alone?”
—Bella Pollen, author of The Summer of the Bear
Part I: Into the Blind Spot
Part II: Learning to See
Part III: The Point of Vanishing
- Off the Shelf, review, 10/5/2016
- TK with James Scott, podcast, 4/5/2016
- VTDigger.org, profile piece, 3/20/2016
- Clash Magazine, mention, 2/3/2016
- Bustle, roundup listing, 1/19/2016
- To the Best of Our Knowledge/PRI, interview, 1/15/2016
- Salon.com, original piece, 1/1/2016
- New York Times, review, 12/20/2015
- Sydney Morning Herald, listed in roundup, 12/9/2015
- Entropy Magazine, listed, 12/4/2015
- Slate Book Review, listed, 12/3/2015
- Minneapolis Star Tribune, review, 11/29/2015
- Literary Hub, write-up, 11/24/2015
- Slate Book Review, review, 11/16/2015
- Library Journal, listed, 11/10/2015
- Minneapolis Star Tribune, write-up, 10/31/2015
- WPR/Joy Cardin Show, interview, 10/22/2015
- The Rumpus, review, 10/22/2015
- New Hampshire Public Radio/Word of Mouth, interview, 10/20/2015
- MaineToday.com, mention of book event, 10/20/2015
- Portland Press Herald, review, 10/18/2015
- CBC Radio One/Tapestry, interview, 10/18/2015
- OnFaith, adapted excerpt, 10/15/2015
- The Grub Daily, Q&A, 10/8/2015
- The Westerly Sun (CT), interview, 10/1/2015
- Midwest Book Review, review, October 2015
- Boston Globle, original piece, 9/27/2015
- Salon.com, adapted excerpt, 9/27/2015
- Powell's, original essay, 9/22/2015
- USA Today, interview and excerpt, 9/21/2015
- Virginia Quarterly Review, adapted excerpt, 9/14/2015
- Caroline Leavitt's blog, Q&A, 9/5/2015
- Sierra Magazine, review, Sept/Oct 2015 issue
- Harvard Magazine, feature, Sept/Oct 2015 issue
Questions for Discussion
- What is this memoir about? Two years living in solitude? A horrendous accident that alters the author’s life forever? A stay in Italy that was both romantic and devastating? All of these? Or something else entirely?
- Consider the various “relationships” Axelrod forms while living in the cabin; Nat and his son, and Linda and Bella. Then consider his relationship with Milena during his year in Italy. In what ways does his conception and experience of intimacy change throughout what he calls his “descent into solitude” (p. 24)?
- In what ways does Axelrod frame writing itself as a means of recovery, of refashioning a world that is less disorienting than the one he has found himself in? Have you ever thought of or experienced art as an act of healing?
- When he describes driving Bella and Linda to the house in Vermont, Axelrod writes: “To talk about the land would have felt like I was talking about myself,” (p. 106). Do you think Axelrod has begun to feel at home in his solitude? Can you relate to the feeling of placeless-ness, of not belonging anywhere and yet yearning to belong, that Axelrod expresses?
- When Axelrod kissed Milena for the first time, “the world,” he writes, “fell away and became deeper all at once,” (p. 125). Discuss this phrase: How does it relate to his broader encounter with the world, with others, with himself?
- When Axelrod’s friend Ray describes dissecting a human cadaver (p. 152-155), Axelrod suggests that Ray is experiencing discomfort at the coincidence of two different worlds he inhabits (“It sounds like two different worlds,” p. 153). How many different worlds, if any, does Axelrod live in, so to speak? How many do you? What, if anything, do these various worlds have to do with each other?
- One of the first words Milena says to Axelrod is “Naya,” which she describes as “no and yes. But at the same time,” (p. 101). In what ways is their relationship characterized by a certain ambivalence, a no and a yes at the same time?
- It is often said that the millennial generation is “spiritual but not religious.” Do you think there is a spiritual element to Axelrod’s “searching for something he couldn’t quite name,” (p. 177)? How do you understand spirituality in your own life, and to what extent is it linked to, or separate from, religion?
- At various points in the memoir, Axelrod both dissociates from and identifies with his own body (“the gaunt twenty-five year old man in the mirror was no one I recognized. A figure was there, a physical presence, but he only followed me at a distance,” p. 3); (“I did not want to lose my body...I’d wanted to see through all surfaces and to see through myself, but I wasn’t a transparent thing. I was bone, sinew, skin,’ p. 200-201). How do these different ways of seeing himself relate to his quest for identity? Can you relate to either or both of these gestures?
- “Geometry had gone off-duty. My ceiling’s formality, in both senses of the word, was gone. I couldn’t tell with any certainty where my ceiling began,” (p. 60). Is this lack of certainty of where things begin or end, only a problem for Axelrod? In what ways does it hinder his perception? In what ways does it present opportunities for seeing in new ways?
- Commenting on his prior plans to attend law school “with a grudge...a slim book of poetry hidden” in his backpack, Axelrod says that after the accident “that track no longer seemed possible...because I knew it was a lie,” (p. 72). In what ways does Axelrod’s accident alter his relationship with concepts like truth, falsity, and reality?
- In the Prologue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which was the subject of Axelrod’s senior thesis at Harvard (p. 73), the protagonist says that, when one is “unseen...you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds.” How might this be a helpful lens through which to understand Axelrod’s situation?