Blogging about the books I have been reading got me thinking about books in general, which, as you might imagine, have played a very big role in my life. The first book of which I have a vivid memory is the initial Dr. Seuss publication, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street [which I quite mistakenly thought referred to the Mulberry Street in Greenwich Village on which my parents lived before Barbara and I were born, until a more knowledgeable reader of this blog corrected my error.] But my favorite childhood book was a fat red copy of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories – four novels and fifty-six short stories in one volume. After taking it out of the Jamaica Public Library during an outing with my father, I became so enamored of Holmes and Watson that my parents bought me a copy the next Christmas. I actually subscribed for a while to the journal of the Baker Street Irregulars, an organization of adults [so to speak] named after the team of street urchins who kept Holmes apprised of the news from the London underworld.
Like many writers and serious readers, I have an intense sensory relationship to certain of my books, grounded as much in their smell and look and feel as in their contents. The stubby black-covered Selby-Bigge edition of David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature is my favorite book, as much because of its rough-textured paper as for its splendid index [a book in its own right] and, of course, Hume’s beautifully clear, elegantly simple statement of his world-shattering arguments. Even though I long ago all but committed sections of it to memory, I still like to take it down from time to time and simply turn the pages lovingly.
The Oxford University Press translations of the works of Aristotle, many volumes of which I acquired second-hand for absurdly low prices while a young Instructor at Harvard, seem to me magisterial in their authority, although I am of course utterly incompetent to judge their scholarly accuracy. My original copy of the Kemp-Smith translation of the Critique of Pure Reason was a graduation gift from my undergraduate fellow madrigalists, Michael Jorrin and Richard Eder. It is inscribed “For Bob Wolff Each even page from Michael Jorrín Each odd page from Richard Eder May 28 1953.” The margins are filled with comments and questions in many different inks. On occasion, I will question a passage in one ink; then in a later ink, write “oh yes, I see.” All these years later, I can no longer recall my original puzzlement or my subsequent eclairecissement. I read and re-read the volume until its covers fell off and I was forced to buy a substitute. The original, nicely re-bound, now sits on my shelves here in Paris, a memento of my youth.
Susie and I have a joint treasure, a collection of the poems of e. e. cummings which we read to one another when we were courting in the late ‘40s. Since it technically was hers, I lost sight of it for thirty-four years until we married in 1987, when it became in law as in spirit our joint property.
As I sit here writing this blog post, arrayed above me on the shelves of our Paris apartment are the complete works of Marx and Engels in forty-four handsomely German bound volumes, the product of the East German Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus. For many years, I had a standing order with Blackwell’s in Oxford. As each volume appeared, they would send it to me and I would add it to the growing row of matching books. The last volume arrived in 1960, price eighteen shillings. [Eighteen shillings in 1960 was roughly $36 in 2014 prices – a decent bargain for 538 pages of letters and 130 pages of notes and indices.] The Werke are a curious combination of Germanic scholarship and proletarian consciousness. The scholarship is impeccable, as we might expect. But since the volumes are officially intended for an audience of workingmen [not, perhaps, of working women], the personenregister identifies everyone whose name appears in the letters, including such world historical figures as Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln, with whom a bourgeois readership might be expected to be familiar.
I have had some odd experiences with books, one of which occurred as Susie and I were packing up to leave Pelham, MA seven years ago and move to Chapel Hill. Since we were moving from a big house to a small apartment, a good deal had to go, and we decided that one of the rejecta would be the many-volumed classic eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that Susie had purchased when her boys were little and had brought with her as a dowry to our marriage. Youthful readers will perhaps not understand the special role that the Britannica played in the intellectual coming of age of America. Published in 1911, the Eleventh edition laid claim to being the assembled scholarly wisdom of the great tradition of European letters. Many of its articles, its authors tastefully identified only with their initials, were written by the most famous Oxbridge scholars of the time. Salesmen went door to door in rural America peddling sets to aspiring upwardly mobile immigrant parents, eager that their children should have access to the secret knowledge that seemed to have catapulted WASPs into positions of wealth and power.
Amherst, MA had a recycling center, of course, in one corner of which was a wooden shack containing shelves of books that residents no longer wanted but were loathe simply to throw away. One was welcome to browse the collection and take what one wanted. Think of it as a sort of academic dumpster-diving. When I showed up with the Britannica volumes in my car trunk, the imperious guardian of the shack informed me that I could not leave them there since “no one will want them.” I cannot adequately express the shame I felt that my garbage was not good enough for the town dump. Over the next week, I slunk around Amherst, surreptitiously tossing a volume at a time into trash bins in town or on the UMass campus.
The life histories of the books I myself have written or edited are replete with odd and unanticipated turns of fate. A textbook imaginatively entitled About Philosophy, which I wrote in the summer of 1974 for an advance big enough to enable my first wife to finish a serious scholarly work, is now in its fortieth year and eleventh edition, having earned fully half of all the money I have made from my books. Since I was not even sure Prentice-Hall would actually published it, I allowed myself to say in it exactly what I thought about philosophy rather than what I imagined Instructors teaching Introduction to Philosophy might wish to find in a textbook. Quite unexpectedly, that self-indulgent approach proved appealing. The one book for which I am widely known, In Defense of Anarchism, started life just shy of half a century ago as a contribution to an ill-fated, never published, volume tentatively titled The Harper Guide to Philosophy, edited by the late Arthur Danto. Eventually published in its present form five years after it was written, it acquired a bizarre fame – universally read, almost universally reviled, translated into languages as far afield as Croatian, Korean, and Malaysian.
To an extent I did not anticipate when I set out on life’s path, books have provided many of the joys and satisfactions I have encountered. I am constantly grateful to the scholars and thinkers who have written, and continue to write, the books from which I derive such pleasure, both the great authors of the past – Hume, Marx, Kant, Plato, Kierkegaard, and the rest – and those less exalted – Erving Goffman, Erich Auerbach, Henri Pirenne, W. E. B. DuBois, Jacqueline Jones, and many, many more, to which list I may now be adding the name of Irving Finkel.