Nelson’s hatred of conventional structure made him difficult to educate. Bored and disgusted by school, he once plotted to stab his seventh-grade teacher with a sharpened screwdriver, but lost his nerve at the last minute and instead walked out of the classroom, never to return. On his long walk home, he came up with the four maxims that have guided his life: most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and everything is wrong. Nelson loves these maxims and repeats them often. They lead him to sympathize, in every discussion, with the rejected idea and the discounted option.

By the time Nelson reached college, his method of combating the regularity chauvinists was quite sophisticated; he put his teachers off with the theories of writer Alfred Korzybski, who denounced all categories as misleading. But this hatred of categories did not produce in Nelson a fuzzy, be-here-now mysticism. On the contrary, Nelson loved words, which were tools for memory, but he hated the way that traditional writing and editing imposed a false and limiting order. Nelson had no interest in the smooth, progressive narratives encased in books. He wanted everything to be preserved in all its chaotic flux, so that it could be reconstructed as needed.

Nelson, a lonely child raised in an unconventional family, became a rebel against forgetting, and a denier of all forms of loss and grief.