My Book Review: 'American Philosophy: A Love Story' by John Kaag

Philosophy professor John Kaag of UMass Lowell has written a wonderful book about his experience putting his emotional-and-intellectual self back together again several years ago. The New York Times Book Review carried a positive and long notice about the book yesterday. Here's my review from the Lowell Sun on Oct. 25.

Life Is Worth Living, With Zest

by Paul Marion

"American Philosophy: A Love Story" by John Kaag (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), $26.

IT’S A MEMOIR. It's a love story. It's a buried treasure tale. It's a philosophical tract. It's a group biography.

UMass Lowell philosophy professor John Kaag melds these forms into a lucid account of a troubled man finding his way back to clarity of mind on a path that runs from Harvard University to the White Mountains and over to O'Leary Library at UMass Lowell.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1975), author Robert Pirsig journeys across western America and thinks about the meaning of life.

He writes, "The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called yourself" as he seeks a unified sense of being and along the way contemplates Plato's dialogues and the Greek notion of "arête" that joins reason and beauty. He calls this conceptual sweet spot "Quality."

That wasn't the only time a popularly published book delved into philosophy in story form, but I was reminded of Pirsig while reading John Kaag's American Philosophy: A Love Story.

The book is another kind of search for meaning after personal suffering, in this case Kaag's existential crisis at 30 years old that leaves him emotionally and intellectually adrift.

For Kaag, the question is not "How shall we live?" but, "Shall we live?" or specifically "Is life worth living," the William James question that drives this narrative.

The buried treasure at the center of the story is a precious pile of books moldering away in the New Hampshire forest, a trove assembled by William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), longtime Harvard teacher and noted philosopher himself.

First editions of Kant, Emerson and the above-mentioned James, a Hocking mentor, are among the thousands of volumes shown to Kaag by 93-year-old Bunn Nickerson, who had lived on Hocking land.

Aware of the value in front of him, Kaag committed to protecting Hocking's library with the family's endorsement. He immersed himself in the effort, thankful for the concrete purpose.

In the process, he regained his psychic balance and even found his way back to loving when his colleague, Carol, offered to help with the books. She gave him zest.

Handling the consequential books, he re-engaged with many of the ideas that had formed him, and in American Philosophy he tells us why these ideas remain urgent.

Thanks to the Hocking family's generosity, some of the rarities, including a 1651 first printing of "Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes, now reside at UMass Lowell, where students can experience for themselves the mysterious power of potent books.

Kaag recently co-authored an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he and Clancy Martin ask if professors like themselves are teaching students enough about "the big questions that matter most," such as "why are we here?"

It's the teacher in him who did the work to rescue those old books and who wrote "American Philosophy" in a form that increased the likelihood of more of us reading about transcendent questions.    

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