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.