A compelling hybrid combining memoir, a dramatic narrative about saving an endangered rare book collection, and the intellectual history of philosophy.
Previously the author of academic tomes (Thinking Through the Imagination: Aesthetics in Human Cognition, 2014, etc.), Kaag (Philosophy/Univ. of Massachusetts, Lowell) recognized a path to writing about philosophy for a general audience by building the story around his unexpected discovery of perhaps 10,000 books in a neglected building on the rural New Hampshire estate of William Ernest Hocking, a deceased Harvard University philosophy professor, and his wife. The first time Kaag entered the estate guided by an acquaintance, he viewed the cohesive collection of rare books in an unsecured building via trespassing. Later, Kaag received permission from the Hocking daughters, who had never cataloged the rare book collection painstakingly built by their parents. The author’s discovery came at a juncture of severe personal depression as a postdoctoral scholar at Harvard. His problematic father had died, his youthful marriage was unraveling, and he was obsessed with the question "Is life worth living?" presented most vividly by William James, “the father of American psychology and philosophy.” By throwing himself into the salvation of the invaluable Hocking collection, Kaag found an affirmative answer to the question, grappled with the death of his sometimes-hated father, filed for divorce, and, as a touching bonus, fell in love with a female academic colleague who had also divorced. That colleague, Carol Hay, joined Kaag on the New Hampshire estate to help save the rare books. Kaag and Hay married in 2011 and later became parents. Some of the books sold at auctions, and others were donated to libraries and archives with climate controls to aid preservation. Throughout the book, the author deftly intertwines the narrative threads in a story perfect for book lovers and soul searchers alike.
Kaag's lively prose, acute self-examination, unfolding romance, and instructive history of philosophy as a discipline make for a surprisingly absorbing book.