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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Leafing Against a Snowy Background

Book catalogs and seed catalogs – those are the ones I can’t resist. And yet, as I’ve cautioned authors thinking about titles and book cover design, any particular item in a catalog has but a moment to capture attention before the reader turns the page. Here, for example, is the way I recently leafed through a catalog of philosophy titles from Rowman & Littlefield.

Opening the front cover, I was immediately faced with a page of book covers. One read, in prominent letters, Jane Austen, and underneath the image, “See page 35.” So yes, I turned right away to page 35 and there found Jane Austen and Philosophy, an edited volume with contributions by many philosophers. Once, years ago, I wanted to write a book to be called Jane Austen and the Age of Reason. (Though the “Age of Reason” actually predated Austen, I felt she was strongly influenced by it and had any number of passages in her books in my mind.) But I had other work to do then, and after that the years went by, and soon everyone, it seemed, was writing about Jane, and I felt she’d been pestered enough. But I did not make a career in academia, and “publish or perish” is not the fire held to my feet. If it were, no doubt I would have turned to St. Jane in my hour of need.

I note any number of “X and Philosophy” titles. Stephen King and Philosophy sits to the left of Jane Austen, and she is flanked on the other side by Jim Henson and Philosophy. Turning back to earlier pages of the catalog, I find The Philosophy of Pornography and say a mental “No, thank you” to that one. Am I not curious? Not curious enough, it seems. Later on in the catalog I find Roald Dahl and Philosophy and Dr. Seuss and Philosophy.

There are books on politics, race, animals, and the environment – all important topics – but when I see Deleuze’s Political Vision, I say “No, thank you” again. I cannot forgive Deleuze his reading of Bergson. And here is a book called The Moral Defense of Homosexuality, which makes me pause to reflect on the strangeness of such an idea -- that is, the idea that homosexuality is in need of a moral defense. Does red hair need a moral defense? Does entropy need a moral defense? I can see moral objections to promiscuity or pedophilia or any number of sexual practices, on the part of heterosexuals or homosexuals, but homosexuality itself is a fact, isn’t it?

I continue to turn the pages, content to have made my life as a bookseller rather than an academic. I don’t get summers off, have no paid benefits, not even a guaranteed salary (or minimum wage!), but I can read whatever I like, in the field of philosophy as elsewhere. Feeling no professional pressure bearing down on me as I survey titles and descriptions makes the browsing delightful.

Then I see The Dialectic of Duration and yelp excitedly! I read the title aloud to David, who responds, “So?” “Duration is a Bergsonian concept,” I remind him, “and it’s written by Gaston Bachelard!” Now he is mildly intrigued (he loves Bachelard), so I read the description of the book, and there, sure enough,

The work is motivated by a refutation of Bergson’s notion of duration – ‘lived time’, experienced as continuous. For Bachelard, experienced time is irreducibly fractured and interrupted....

It troubles me not that Bachelard opposes Bergson, since it seems he has done it in an interesting way, and anyway, I find anti-Bergson writings very thought-stimulating – though sometimes, I must admit, almost too much so. When I read Bertrand Russell’s quibbles with Bergson, for instance, I was so irate I could not sleep and stayed up all night writing a refutation of Russell’s critique. Really, I wondered if he had read Bergson at all, he got him so wrong! Someone of Russell’s stature should have been ashamed of himself to skate over the surface in that sophomoric way, I thought.

But back to the catalog. One title, The Changing Face of Alterity, reminds me of a dear friend, no longer among us, whose chief area of study was alterity. Otherness. I wonder what Annie would make of our world today. And here’s another one that stops me in my tracks: The Phenomenology of Gravidity. Of what? Gravidity, the description notes, is “the actual experience of bearing a child.” Well, there, I’ve learned something new.

Then comes Hegel, Hegel, and more Hegel. “They just can’t let him go,” I observe, and David is vastly amused. Of course, the same is true of Heidegger and Socrates and all the big names. If I were in an academic world, I would surely have to read Socrates Tenured, a book claiming to diagnose the crisis facing the humanities and charting a road forward.

Well, that was refreshing, and along with the general entertainment of browsing, I found one irresistible title. So now, on to the seed catalogs!

Winter is a time to read books and to dream of spring.

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