Bearing Books from New England
November 1, 2009 2 Comments
A week ago I returned from a New England holiday with my family. We journeyed to Maine and New Hampshire in quest of respite from the cacophony of California. We found it. Harbor views, the Maine woods, marine vessels, lobsters, crisp air, and fall leaves.
And I found bookshops—with mountains of second-hand books—ranging from the maximally disheveled to the customary semi-organized to the immaculate (for example, The Old Professor’s Bookshop in Camden, ME).
Of course, I returned with an armload of books. Here they are, in no particular order, followed by an effort to say about what’s interesting about each selection:
- Donald E. Westlake, Thieves’ Den: The Dortmunder Stories (11 short fiction in the mystery category; 183 pages, 2004)
- Kate O’Brien, Farewell Spain (memoir and travel writing; 249 pages, 1937, 1985)
- Peter Geach and Max Black, eds., Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege (essays in philosophical analysis; 244 pages, 1952)
- John Stubbs, John Donne: The Reformed Soul (biography; 565 pages, 2006)
- Gale E. Christianson, In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times (history and biography; 623 pages, 1984)
- Morton White, editor and commentator, The Age of Analysis: 20th Century Philosophers (history of philosophy, philosophical analysis; 253 pages, 1955)
- Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Volume 8—Modern Philosophy: Bentham to Russell, Part II, Idealism in America, The Pragmatist Movement, The Revolt Against Idealism (history of philosophy; 360, 1967)
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method (existentialism, philosophy; 181 pages, 1963)
- Henry D. Aiken, The Age of Ideology: 19th Century Philosophers (history of philosophy; 283, 1956)
- Robert Bretall, ed., A Kierkegaard Anthology (philosophy; 494 pages, 1946)
- George Santayana, The Life of Reason, or the Phases of Human Progress (philosophy; 320 pages, 1946)
- New England in a Nutshell: Quotations about the People, Places, & Particulars of Life in the Six New England States (quotations, geography, and culture; 179 pages, 2002)
- Ian T. Ramsey, Christian Discourse: Some Logical Explorations (published lectures, philosophy of religion, theology; 92 pages, 1965)
- Bliss Perry, ed., The Heart of Emerson’s Journals (essays, memoir, autobiography; 357 pages, 1938)
- Joseph Margolis, ed., Philosophy Looks at the Arts: Contemporary Readings in Aesthetics (anthology, aesthetics; 481 pages, 1978)
- J. M. Thompson, Robespierre and the French Revolution (history, biography; 159 pages, 1962)
These 16 books hail from three different bookshops, all of them vintage quaint. What explains my choices?
- Westlake is a celebrated mystery novelist. Short stories appeal for their shortness. Quotation: “I don’t know how it is with anyone else, but I can never think about what I’m supposed to think about” (author’s Preface).
- Farewell Spain recounts, in first person perspective by a noted essayist, much of what happened leading up to the Spanish Civil War—a remarkably recent event for a modern European country (the 1930s). The circumstances and outcomes fascinate me. Also, I often wonder at the attractions of Marxism for American and Western European intellectuals of the time. This book yields some answers.
- Frege is probably the most surprising entry in this list. It was for me the most surprising discovery among the heaps of books to be perused. Here, in one volume, I have access to key essays on logic by this influential figure. Quotation: “It is even now not beyond all doubt what the word ‘function’ stands for in Analysis, although it has been in continual use for a long time” (first line from “What Is a Function?”—page 107). The sentiment expressed here has broad application in philosophical practice, I’m afraid.
- John Donne was probably the greatest of the metaphysical poets. But I doubt that enough is known about his enigmatic life to cobble together a biography of nearly 600 pages. The first two chapters of Stubbs’s biography do betray a tendency to read far too much between the lines, and in such a manner that can be detected without any prior knowledge of the facts of Donne’s life. Quotations: Several lines in Donne’s elegy “The Perfume” demonstrate that Donne was not someone to “sit back and coast through life on inherited creeds” (p. xix). “Throughout his life, Donne showed he was willing to take decisions that endangered everything he had; but at the end he was at peace with those decisions. His biography is worth studying not only because he was a splendid writer, but also because he was a brave and principled man” (p. xxv). That’s the sort of thing I look for in a biography. But I also require verisimilitude, and there’s reason to wonder if this book meets such a minimalist standard.
- Was Isaac Newton “the greatest scientific thinker in modern times”? There’s ample reason to think so. But he was as absorbed with religious questions as he was with the scientific and the mathematical; in fact, he was interested in their mutual relations. Newton’s mature library included “416 titles on theology, which together with the patristic writings account for 27.5% percent of the Newton collection, about three times the number of volumes on any other subject” (p. 247). (Who cannot appreciate the exactness of the biographers calculations? I have no idea of the percentage of books on theology in my own collection.) Of Newton’s attitude about God, Christianson writes: “Try as he might, Newton could no more forge a bond with his Creator than he could with his fellow man. His future relationship with God was to be an intellectual rather than an emotional one, in which Christ, the loving and forgiving Redeemer, played a secondary role. It was Yahweh, the omnipotent Creator, harsh Taskmaster, and imperious Judge of the Old Testament, who commanded Newton’s lifelong attention and obedience. . . . Yet having found his God, he never once denied Him” (p. 248).
- Copleston’s volume may be a redundancy in my library. For thirty years I’ve collected individual volumes of the complete set published by Image, Doubleday—on average for about $2.
- The slight paperback books by Henry Aiken and Morton White are part of the old Mentor Philosophers Series. White dedicates his volume to G. E. Moore, and Aiken dedicates his to Ralph Barton Perry. These are two philosophers for whom I, too, have great respect, and whose work has influenced my outlook in philosophy. Written 50 years ago, these books will never be out of date. The expositions of views by past philosophers is reliable.
- Who knew that Sarte sought to purify Marxism and believed that “existentialism is the pulsating heart of Marxism”? Anyone who has read Search for a Method. Quotation: “I do not like to talk about existentialism” (Jean-Paul Sartre, in the Preface to this book).
My acquaintance with Søren Kierkegaard (b. 1813) is not as deep as I wish. This collection puts me in touch with bits of his work I would not otherwise know. Kierkegaard was a pithy philosopher, in the best sense. Wisdom poured from his pen. My first dip into this roundup of his jottings will be “The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage,” from Either/Or. Then it’s on to “When All are Christians, Christianity eo ipso Does Not Exist.” (I wonder what ‘eo ipso‘ looks like in Danish.) Quotation: “We will now see whether the age which demolished romantic love has succeeded in putting anything better in its place” (p. 82).
- Who reads George Santayana these days? I do. Of special interest to me are chapters VIII, IX, and X, on “Prerational Morality,” “Rational Ethics,” and “Post-Rational Morality,” respectively. Quotation: “The condition . . . of making a beginning in good politics is to find a set of men with well-knit character and cogent traditions, so that there may be a firm soil to cultivate and that labour may not be wasted in ploughing the quicksands” (p. 254). What was true and lacking in 1933 is true and lacking in 2009.
- I sought out a souvenir of this trip to New England and turned up two suitable books, the Nutshell book of quotations, and the memoirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Quotations: “There is nothing a New-Englander so nearly worships as an argument” (Henry Ward Beecher, quoted in New England in a Nutshell); sounds like my kind of place. “The most prodigious genius, a seraph’s eloquence, will shamefully defeat its own end, if it has not first won the heart of the defender to the cause he defends” (Emerson, p. 20).
- As for the volume on aesthetics, I suppose I’ll start with essay 11, “The Ontological Peculiarity of Works of Art,” by Joseph Margolis (eight pages), proceed to essay 13, “On Drawing an Object,” by Richard Wollheim (twenty-four pages), and continue next to essay 22, “The Language of Fiction,” by Margaret Macdonald (fourteen pages). Quotations: “My own suggestion is that (token) works of art are embodied in physical objects, not identical with them” (Margolis p. 217). “. . . if an observer claims to see something or to see something in a certain way, then, if this could be so, that is if his judgment falls within the general specifications of what is possible, we may assume that it is so” (Wollheim, p. 250); Wollheim’s use of “we” in this passage intrigues. “A character, like all else in pure fiction, is confined to its rôle in a story. Not even the longest biography exhausts what could be told of any human person, but what Jane Austin tells of Emma Woodhouse [in the novel Emma] exhausts Emma Woodhouse” (Macdonald, 433). Hmm . . . . If Macdonald is right about fictional characters, what would it mean to say, “My life is a story?”
- The copy of Ian T. Ramsey’s published Riddell Memorial Lectures of November 1963 is pleasingly musty, which makes reading it dangerously interesting for someone (like myself) with a mold allergy. Ramsey was at pains to rescue Christian talk about God from the tentacles of a residual positivism that reduced the scope of meaningful statements to what is empirically verifiable. Quotation: “What I would like to do now is, first, to show how phrases such as ‘up there’, ‘out there’, and ‘beyond’ come to be used at all in discourse about God” (p. 66).
- Finally, Robespierre and the French Revolution. I believe that the French Revolution of the 18th century was the most wide-ranging transformative event in the shaping of modern history. The better it is understood, the greater will be our understanding our own times. I doubt that this little book presses such a claim. Its aim is to shine the light on a singular personality, Maximilien Robespierre, who supervised much of the Reign of Terror. He sent many to the guillotine, but, strangely, he managed to be guillotined himself; the interval between his last glorious act on behalf of the Revolution and his gnarly demise was all of six weeks. Quotation: “So Robespierre died” (first line in final chapter, p. 135).
My problem now is storage. This collection of books fit more easily in my suitcase than they will on my shelves.