Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

BOOKISH MUSINGS

Yesterday, as I was putting the finishing touches on my informal, spontaneous remarks for the Harvard Social Studies lunch, I pulled down my copy of the Aveling and Moore translation of CAPITAL, Volume One, to check a quote. It had been a while since I had held the book in my hands, and as I turned the pages looking for the passage [it was, as I thought, in the chapter on Money], I felt waves of nostalgic warmth flow through me. There were the slick white pages of the International Publishers paperback, the cover held on by strips of packing tape, the pages covered with my underlinings, notes, comments, and questions, some in black, some in red. I thought, as I so often do, how deep is my attachment to the physical presence of certain books, an attachment that cannot be transferred to a computer screen or digital display.

There are only a few books to which I am attached in just this way. The very first was the lovely, stubby black-covered Selby-Bigge edition of David Hume's A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE, on which I wrote a part of my doctoral dissertation. The pages are nubby and cream colored, with a quite distinctive feel and even smell. Once, in the Reading Room of the British Museum, I held in my hands Hume's own copy of the TREATISE. I imagine the scholars who first undertook to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls felt a similar tingle of divinity.

My copy of the Kemp-Smith translation of Kant's FIRST CRITIQUE is laden with marginal notations in several inks and pencil. In that volume, I can see my initial response to a passage -- a simple question mark. This is then crossed out, and the words "Oh, I see," set in its place. Now, I cannot recall either what puzzled me or what I thought the explanation was.

David Ricardo's PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, in the great eleven volume edition of Ricardo's works and letters by the equally great Piero Sraffa, has much the same look and feel as the TREATISE and my many volumes of the Oxford translation of the works of Aristotle. There is something about English book publishers of a certain era.

Utterly different in look and feel, but equally beloved, is the slender hard-covered volume of Kierkegaard's PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS, the two and a half page Preface to which is, I think, the most beautiful philosophy ever written.

I have spent a good deal of my life engaged in politics, or thinking and writing about issues of great public moment, but the simple truth is that I am a man of the book, not the barricade. I was fortunate, as a sixteen year old Freshman sixty years ago, to be able to immerse myself in these and other books, shutting out the world save for letters and visits to Susie. How I wish, in my old age, that I could recapture that innocence.

7 comments:

Jeff said...

Whether your comments end up being about Peretz or not, I hope you'll post them to your blog afterward.

M said...

Professor Wolff,

I'm with you on this one. Many of my grad student colleagues prefer to read articles (and even sometimes entire books) on their computers. I can't do it; I'd much rather have an old, dusty tome.

Mike

Anderson said...

I too have fond memories of the Selby-Bigge edition.

Besides their physical qualities, older editions also are remarkable for having been edited with care. There are remarkably few typos in the Kemp Smith translation, for instance. Publishers used to actually pay someone competent to correct proofs. Those days are past.

Snurp said...

Funny. I feel much the same about physical books, but for that reason I cannot get myself to put any marks in them. Underlining, marginal notes, and the like seem almost like sacrilege to me (though I'm usually more accepting if I've bought a used book that has them), making note-taking much more complicated.

DanielK said...

I love holding the physical books of Hume, Kant, and Kierkegaard in my hand; I cannot fathom using a computer or ebook reader to read such philosophy. But perhaps we're part of dying breed in the age of computers.

akapital said...

I too have a visceral hold on the palpability of books and was struck by a clever add in National Geographic that read something like "Will the internet replace books, did instant coffee replace coffee?"

My copy of Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments is filled with comments from your Philo and Lit class. I recalled you stated something to the effect that if you were to be religious it would be in the way of Kierkegaard...does this still hold true?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yes, that is still true. That is why Raphael Magarik rather presciently called me a Protestant atheist. I loved teaching that course.