If nothing else, this memoir will make book lovers everywhere envious of John Kaag. Some six or seven years before he wrote this book, Kaag was in rural New Hampshire helping to organize a conference on William James. He was suffering from depression, his marriage was in shambles, and he felt that his career was at an impasse (this is not the part you’re supposed to envy). Though talking with strangers was not characteristic of Kaag, for reasons he didn’t quite understand he started a conversation with a 93 year-old man in a roadside coffee shop. When the man learned that Kaag was a philosophy professor, he offered to bring Kaag to the estate where he grew up – the estate of the philosopher Ernest Hocking, where – he said – there was a library.
OK, you can start envying now.
What Kaag found was an overgrown plot of land and a stone building the size of a small house. He tried a door and found it was unlocked. While the man he met at the coffee shop was off doing other things on the property, Kaag entered the library and found it full of books, many of which were valuable first editions. Even more shocking was the fact that many of the books were filled with the marginalia of Ernest Hocking or of other, even earlier and more distinguished philosophers. Some first editions dated back to Locke and Hobbes in the seventeenth century. The stone library was not an ideal storage unit for these treasures, and many of the books were moldy and nibbled upon by small animals.
American Philosophy: A Love Story is the story of Kaag’s quest to save and catalogue the books in the Hocking Library. Through the man he met at the coffee shop, he is introduced to Ernest Hocking’s granddaughters, who listen to his plea and happily authorize him to catalog their grandfather’s books and – eventually – find a home for them in a university library with the climate-control system and other facilities needed to store antique books. It is also the story of Kaag’s decision to finally end his terrible marriage and confess his love for a colleague, Carol. Before that happens, though, Kaag’s dark night of the soul gets even darker. He contracts Lyme Disease at the library and has a humiliating experience when – in the middle of contemplating Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” – he has a flat tire in a rural area along a dangerous stretch of highway and realizes that he has never learned to change a tire. The first third of the book is full of camping mishaps, accidental run-ins with animal poo, and the continuing trials of Kaag’s horrible marriage. Slowly, though, things start to improve. He is continually inspired by the books he finds and the annotations he reads in them, often written by giants like Emerson and William James. He begins cultivating a relationship with his colleague Carol, who returns from a holiday break and tells Kaag that her marriage is ending too. She begins accompanying him to the library. They camp together, share motel rooms, and fall in love in a cloud of wisdom, old-book smell, and possible hantavirus.
I really loved this book. I knew only a few basics about the philosophers Kaag cites the book, which is to say that I know Transcendentalism well, know what pragmatism is and that William James is the father of it, and have a general awareness of how the focus of Western philosophy gradually shifted away from the individual’s relationship with God, first to his relationship with society (think of Hobbes and Locke) and then to his relationship with himself, with an emphasis on self-determination and individual identity. While his own approach is not religious, Kaag writes with great insight about Dante, whose three-part Divine Comedy is very much on Kaag’s mind as he journeys through his own hell and Purgatory. Kaag empathizes with William James’ own depression and in general treats the philosophers he writes about as if they were family members. If the idea of reading a book about philosophy intimidates you, don’t worry. This book is much more memoir than textbook. Think of it as Wild but with less cocaine.
I thoroughly recommend this book to general readers who are interested in an honest, cogent memoir about a personal journey from isolation to love and union.