A Lost Library


Mt. Chocorua, Sanford Robinson Gifford via Wikimedia Commons

American Philosophy: A Love Story had an utterly irresistible and all too hard-to-live-up-to premise.  It was this: John Kaag was a struggling philosophy postdoc when by pure chance he wandered onto the rural estate of a long dead Harvard don and into his nearly untouched library of rare books.  William Ernest Hocking, who died in 1966, would have known William James and Robert Frost, and studied under Josiah Royce and Edmund Husserl.  The library he built in the White Mountains of New Hampshire contained a vast trove of American philosophical and religious work as well as first editions of monuments going back to Kant, Hobbes, and Spinoza.  This is the stuff of dreams.  Although Kaag faced no rude awakening, and was instead invited to stay, camp, catalogue, and find a home for the collection, I’m afraid the rest of the book is somewhat paled in comparison.

Kaag chose to join the story of the library with two others.  One is Kaag’s own emotional rebuilding after divorcing his first wife.  It’s not for nothing that he was most drawn to the theme in American philosophy of what makes life worth living.   It makes me feel awfully hard hearted but this is the aspect of the book that works least well, for me anyhow.  I’m sure it’s a matter of perspective.  And now it occurs to me that it’s also no coincidence that Kaag names the sections of his book Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a choice I was happy to just pass over, as it’s my least favorite epic.  (It’s enough of a stretch to imagine leaving Limbo when Homer, Socrates, the Saladin, et al. are hanging out there; I don’t remember if Dante mentions a library.)  Passages of a desperate, confessional bent seemed too abrupt and contrast weirdly with the gently enthusiastic tone of the history of philosophy, the other major theme.

Kaag laments somewhat the Americans’ secondary status viz the European greats; I don’t know if there’s really any helping it.  The philosophy is interesting enough, I suppose, and emphasizes a sort of proto existentialist angle: What becomes of human meaning and freedom after Darwin and physics?  The thread seems to drop, but I got the idea that some of the contacts between Hocking and his students and later French existentialists, testified to in Hocking’s letters, formed a part of Kaag’s actual research.   I don’t remember anything similar in the small part of William James’ Psychology that I read for school.  I found the biography more memorable.  Hocking was a member of the carpenters’ union in San Francisco during the rebuilding, working with redwood lumber so fresh “the sap would jump out if we hit them with a hammer”.  He would later enlist his philosopher friends as masons for his own library.



Arranging the Imaginary Library

I picked out Behind the Urals at the Boston Athenaeum.  The library of the Athenaeum is, broadly speaking, divided into an old and a new collection.  The old books are those acquired while the library used a classification created by its own librarian, Charles Cutter.  Maybe forty years ago, they switched to the Library of Congress system.  As far as I know, reconciling the Cutter with the LOC would be extremely time consuming and not very helpful, since both are digitized.  The separation is interesting in itself.  For one thing, the old books look spectacular.  I’m not supposed to take photos, but it’s worth a search.  One of my favorite sections is what I think of as the travel section.  It’s located on a glass balcony above the main hall.  It’s where I found The Empty Quarter, about early twentieth century exploration in Arabia.  I had noticed Behind the Urals some time before, and I stopped putting it off and grabbed it a couple of weeks ago in keeping with my “see it, do it” resolution. (Just as I was writing this I put it aside and double checked the affiliation rules for Massachusetts primary elections.)

At school, we were enjoined when reading difficult books to assume good faith and interpret charitably.  I’ll admit that I found this easier for Marx than for some of the others, like Aquinas.  In my last post on Behind the Urals, I was trying to convey what was interesting in John Scott’s report, vis a vis idealism, women’s liberation, and educational reform (not to mention whupping Nazis) without supporting Stalinism, to put it bluntly.  Even that’s dubious if there’s reason to think that an author might not be writing in good faith.

So that brings me to the subject of my post: How do we know what we are reading?  I suppose most readers spend almost as much time thinking about the books they have not read as about the ones they have.  Accordingly, most of us carry with us a sort of vast imaginary library, and where a given book fits in that library tells us something distinct from what we get from actually reading it.  (Among others, Pierre Bayard writes about something like this, but I don’t feel like digging it out, and he of all people is not in a position to complain.)  Lately I’ve been troubled by the problem of arranging the imaginary library.  So while I don’t have any answer as to how we can trust what we are reading, hopefully I can illustrate this feeling.

I might never have run across Behind the Urals or The Empty Quarter outside the Athenaeum, and not solely because the collection runs to older books.  It’s also because the Library of Congress Classification appears to weaken the subject of travel writing (Cutter’s class A is listed as “Description and Travel, Eastern Hemisphere”) in favor of history.  On the LOC website, Behind the Urals is listed under DK, history of Russia, the former USSR, and Poland.  I realize that classification is difficult, and the historical themes of revolution and the buildup to WWII were part of the pleasure of Scott’s story.  More surprisingly, The Empty Quarter, which focuses narrowly on desert exploration, is also listed in world history, subclass DS (Asia).  Finally it turned out that a book about the arctic, Shackleton and the Endurance is in fact listed under class G (Geography, Anthropology, and Recreation).  From a certain point of view it is strange that a book like Behind the Urals could be found near, for example, works based on macroeconomic analyses written decades or more after the fact.  What connections have been made or missed based on the arrangement of a library?  William Goldbloom Bloch does well to push his investigation of the mathematics of the Library of Babel to include not only all possible books but all possible arrangements of the books.

I suspect that as well as being dispersed physically, the reputation of Cutter’s section A has suffered.  Such works are likely to be colonialist, Orientalist, or just plain too out of date for some people.  When are such generalizations really helpful?  I don’t really want to complain about this so much as about the fact that I simply don’t have much idea what is there.  There is no Oxford Companion to Travel Writing.  In a largish reference collection, the closest thing I found was A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701 to 1800.  There is the Cambridge Companion to Travel Literature, but my slight experience of of the Cambridge Companions involves long, theoretically motivated essays completely inimical to browsing.  This wing of my mental library remains dark.

The more I think about it, the more I am sure that Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, published last spring, is a major event in science fiction.  Together with The Martian it represents a turn to hard science fiction engaged with contemporary issues.  At any rate, I’ve been returning to it again and again, and I usually find something interesting.  Right now I want to know why Rufus MacQuarie, faced with the end of the world, obtained an out of date version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for his underground fastness.  Sonar Taxlaw may be all the justification that exists for this decision, and she is probably sufficient, but it’s provoking nonetheless.  The library for the end of the world is an important sub department of the imaginary library, and you wouldn’t want to go into it with sub par reference works.  The ninth Britannica was famous for its scholarly articles, the eleventh for Americanizing and popularizing the same.  Who knows but that there might be shades of difference regarding the usefulness and accessibility of the technical articles even in the latest editions?  I hope someone out there knows.

Upcoming: my reading of the latest from Umberto Eco, Numero Zero. Lately I’ve picked up Bill Bryson’s favorite travel book and a book about botanizing in Tibet.

The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson Baker

Old Books

Some of my favorite reads fail to make it up here.  It happened with Graham Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth.  It happened with Eliot Weinberger and with Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches, not to mention all the junk I’m ashamed to put on here. I shouldn’t go without saying something about Baker’s The Way the World Works.  Almost every essay in this book has something good in it, if only a well timed moment of bombast, a silly joke, or a great metaphor.  “Black it was and full of power,” he writes of a penny in a fountain in an otherwise straightforward piece about a summer job.  Wikipedia’s automatic filters, or “bots”, revert a piece of profane but spirited vandalism “with a little sigh”.

Two essays in particular captivated me.  The first was “Truckin’ for the Future”, which title was the slogan of an ambitious San Francisco librarian Baker clashed with in the nineties.  Having written about card catalogues in the New Yorker, he was contacted by disgruntled librarians and became embroiled in questions of deaccession and open records.  The essay is a thrilling hit piece on an administration that, not content with remaking a major city library as a trendy “information utility”, used the chaos of an earthquake and a badly planned move to hack apart a valuable collection and decades of work.

Baker’s essays on newspapers are in a similar vein.  He argues for keeping the old physical copies alongside the microfilm and digital versions.  But these essays are less polemical and more focused on the lovely, leatherbound elephant folios of the bound newspaper runs of yore.  Is Baker a crank?  Is there another side to this story?  Library bureaucracy resorted to counterclaims plausible (it’s always going to be necessary to throw books away) and implausible (he’s Rasputin), and plain stonewalling.  I think Nicholson Baker has established that he deserves the libraries that would make him happy.

The second essay is “Why I am a Pacifist”.  This was written after the book Human Smoke, in which Baker let sources speak for themselves but concluded that the pacifists who spoke out during World War II were right.  While this essay is in some ways a response to the many people who objected to Human Smoke, I would love to see a real, sustained exchange on the subject between Baker and some of the people, especially those on the left, who hold so tightly to the notion of the good war.  Baker is deeply mistrustful of it.  His insistence that a falsely sanitized image of air power has held sway from WWII to the present is compelling.  So too is the insistent focus on the refugee issue.  Could more have been done to save Jews, things that didn’t involve firebombing?  Recent events suggest that Americans, among other nations, would try almost anything before accepting a flood of refugees.

This past week I enjoyed a third Cesar Aira novella, The Literary Conference.  I’m planning to reread Meno and read some of the dialogues I haven’t gotten to yet.  I’m also trying to make myself learn some chess openings.  I have a cool old copy of Capablanca’s Primer of Chess; maybe that will be more fun than looking them up online.

Image by Skyden67, via Wikimedia Commons, CC share alike.

My Literary Companions

I’ve long taken these friends for granted, but as big reference books of all kinds are superseded by Wikipedia and Google and begin to crowd the shelves of used bookstores, maybe an appreciation is called for.  The Oxford Companions always took pride of place on my parents’ best bookshelves, low down over the back of the couch, an easy reach for a kneeling kid.  I used to look at the smoky whaling scene on the cover of the Companion to American Literature, and I wondered why the girl on the spine of the Companion to English Literature looked so sad.

The Companions (we also had the Companion to Classical Literature and the Companion to the English Language; Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations always struck me as an honorary member of the company) are not-quite-encyclopedic miscellanies of the titular subjects, including primarily authors and works, but also characters, periodicals, places, mythological figures, and so on.  The original, the Companion to English Literature first published in 1932, contains quite a bit on the Greek and Latin classics, major French and American figures, anything that made an impression on English letters at all, really.

The books are okay for actual reference, but of course they can hardly compete with the internet.  Once a week, maybe, I’ll turn to them before I turn to Wikipedia.  They are wonderful for aimless browsing, of course, but the same can be said again for Wikipedia.  What they really have going, besides mere authority, is their stubborn upholding of the archaic and forgotten.  I can look up Jane Austen, of course, and then I discover she’s flanked by the minor Roman poet Ausonius, and by Alfred Austin (1835 – 1913), barrister and one time poet laureate of England.  These figures were once really important, probably to some of the people who are still important to us, and that is why they deserve to be remembered.  You might find them on Wikipedia, but they don’t form any large part of the typical Wiki binge.  They’re also good for the occasional blunt editorial judgement: Austin “published twenty volumes of verse, of little merit”.

I’m always meaning to investigate more recent editions of the Companion to English Literature; the latest came out in 2009.  They’re always a little hard to track down, librarians somehow being reluctant just to stick them all in one place.  Certainly significant efforts have been made to update, include, contextualize… I doubt that the latest versions can compete with mine of 1967, in terms of price if nothing else.  There are also many, many new Companions on subjects that to me seem like rather a stretch, like Mark Twain and beer.  They’re probably fun, but these are not small investments in shelf space or money!

Since my parents of course were not parting with theirs, I’ve had to build up my own collection.  The English companion I inherited from a grandparent; I found my used Bartlett’s for a now exhorbitant seeming $15; the American I found at a library sale for an incredible $2.  The Oxford Guide to Philosophy appears to be an unsuccessful rebranding of the series for the American market; I found it remaindered at Borders for a well spent $10.  Finally, Princeton jumped ahead of Oxford with its daring Companion to Mathematics.  Perhaps it was an impossible venture, it’s hard for me to judge.

The very well done Oxford Companion to French Literature was probably my first companion purchase, but it now resides with my parents’ collection.  I may raise my eyebrows at the Companion to Australian Gardens or the Companion to American Food and Drink, but I have to appreciate their thoroughness and I may still invest in a Companion to Spanish Literature, a Companion to German Literature  For years I was certain that there existed an Oxford Companion to Russian Literature.  It seemed indispensable.  Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that there is no such book!  Does anyone know of a suitable replacement?

The Best Place in the World

The other night I logged on to my library account to see whether I had anything coming due, and up popped a survey.  I answered the questions as well as I could, but was left feeling that I could have said a lot more.

I submit that the best buildings in the world are public libraries.  A library serves humanity at its essential best.  Being open and not prescriptive, it does so more broadly than a school or theater or museum, and is prior to these.  While I am no impartial judge, and can think of many great libraries, I think that mine, in Boston, may be the greatest.


That monumental inscription runs high along the entire length of the neoclassical main building on Copley Square.  I couldn’t say it any better.  I believe in the power of public things to make our lives better and gladly contribute my share.  I wish that weren’t such a controversial position these days.  When I go in this way, I always read the inscription, and then I glance at the hundreds of names of famous authors and scientists carved in smaller letters underneath the windows.  I know most of them, but Goldoni? Massinger?  Which Ford is that?  Someday I’ll have to make a study of them.


Once I’ve passed the iron and bronze entryway and the marble floored and tile vaulted lobby, I generally head for the circulating collection in the adjoining building, but I have a choice:  I can stay on the first floor and skirt the fountained courtyard, a route that drops me off in front of new nonfiction, where I’m sure to spend a few minutes.  Or I can head up the stairs, between the lions (older than New York’s I read somewhere) memorializing Civil War infantry units and the towering Chavannes murals.

small room

Though it’s out of my way, I’ll stop in the dark and usually empty room where Edwin A. Abbey’s dreamlike series of grail murals decorates the higher portions of the walls.

small grail

This upper route leads to the second floor of the new building where the reference and circulating nonfiction books normally reside.

So what do I actually use the library for?  My notes tell me that I’ve read more than forty books from the library in the two and a half years that I’ve been here, over a third of the books I’ve read in that time.  I remember checking out Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, Laxness’ Independent People, volumes of Livy, Plutarch, and Sallust, and of course Shakespeare.  A pretty good mix, I think.

I’ve checked out other books repeatedly without reading them, and I don’t feel guilty about that.  Chaucer and a book on backgammon shared that fate.  On the last trip I agonized over whether it was time to tackle the last volume of Livy, but I finally decided I had enough to read already.  I feel like I could make better use of the library.  There’s a lot besides circulating books.  I’ve requested books from delivery, but only rarely.  I’ve barely glanced over the list of available databases.  On the other hand, there’s no sense worrying about having a lack of books to read or pretending to have given the ones I have the attention they deserve.

For someone who believes he’s in the greatest place on earth, I could really stand to pay more attention to what goes on here.  Right now the library is in the midst of a major renovation, and for all I know they could be getting rid of all the books and replacing them with video games.  That’s a worst case scenario, obviously.  I duly filled out my survey, expressing my opinion of the importance of buying books and maintaining the collection.  My sense is that it’s reasonably up to date and investments are being made in the right places.  When I read about a hot new title in The New York Review, I can usually find it.

The last question on the survey was an open ended ‘what would you like to tell us?’  Well.  The trouble is, I hesitate to share my most outlandish fantasies about what a great library could be.  With apologies to my many friends in primary and secondary education, I often find myself contrasting the current state of public schools with my dreams of what a library could be.  I don’t mean this to reflect badly on teachers; I think it says more about our ideas of education as a society.

A large city might spend billions of dollars on public schools.  What do we get?  The bitter struggle with which children are forced to attend school is matched by the bitterness of the controversy over who should teach them and what.  The solution, so far, has been more testing.  Those who voluntarily continue their education fork over at a rate that increases far beyond inflation.

Now I would never, ever suggest that it would be a good thing to actually defund the public schools and invest the money in libraries.  But just imagine what we could do with that money.  Or with the money we might save if we decided that we didn’t need to invade two countries on the other side of the earth at once, or secretly keep track of every electronic message.  That’s what I’d like to see.  I picture a colossal open stack library accommodating every collection of works ever dreamed up, open twenty four hours.  It’s a possibility: it is high time that America saw another architectural and engineering milestone, a wonder of the world.  It would be the kind of place people would go willingly, as they already do, in droves, to our underfunded and vanishing libraries, but worthy of their most admirable self improving impulses.  Add a Roman bath and I would go homeless for such a place.  At the very least, the true public spiritedness and endless possibility embodied in our libraries should be the model for all of our public endeavors.

First photo is by Fcb981 (Eric Baetscher?) via Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Share Alike, the rest are the author’s own.