Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Portrait of a Bookshelf

When you're young and moving from place to place, you have to make difficult decisions about what to do with your books. As a college student I lugged books back and forth from Colorado to Santa Fe, then had to decide which to ship to Honolulu when my family moved there. Now that I'm back in school - in California this time - I had to choose a small selection to send once more across the Pacific. I always sent more books flying around than I need to, of course. Who has time to read - much less read philosophy - when you're a full time student?

I think that some of the books I chose to ship from Hawaii this time I knew I would not read. I sent them more as reminders of concepts, as artifacts of my academic heritage as a Johnny. Other books I think I sincerely believed I might pick up on some odd afternoon. Still others I simply hoped I might finally find time and motivation to read.

So which books did I send? That's the subject of the post. I don't know that I'll hit everything, but there a few indicative selections worth mentioning.

Have Read and Enjoyed, but Unlikely to Read Again Division

Hegel - Phenomenology of the Spirit
Hume - A Treatise of Human Nature
Plato - Republic
Smith - The Wealth of Nations

Yeah, I know. In retrospect, the Hegel is a little bit over-the-top. A small part of my mind probably thought that I might pick up Hume and maybe (maybe) Smith at some point. I loved Hume, and there are parts I haven't read that I really do want to. And, really, The Wealth of Nations is a seminal and still highly pertinent book, but Hegel? If you're not familiar, Hegel is probably one of the most unclear writers in the history of Western philosophy. Just a random quotation to demonstrate:

"We found that a law existed when the relation was such that the universal organic property in an organic system had made itself into a Thing, and in this Thing had a structured copy of itself, so that both were the same being, present in the once case as a universal moment, and in the other, as a Thing."

Yep, I'll be picking that up for fun. I suppose I should chalk the decision to bring Hegel up to Nostalgia, or the craziness of last-minute book selections. I do suppose it would look impressive (and/or pretentious) to visitors, if I had any.

As for Plato, I feel I don't need to justify that one. Who doesn't have a copy of the Republic on their shelf these days?

Have Read and Still Sincerely Hope to Pick Up Again, but Probably Won't Division

Adams - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the whole, 5-book trilogy)
Cervantes - Don Quixote
Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land
Pascal - Pensees
Plutarch - Lives

Because I still hope to read these - or at least leaf through them - I don't consider them bad decisions. But really, how likely is it that I'll pick up any of these books? Adams is great, and hilarious, and odds are at some point I'll pull down the series and read it again. But odds also are that time is after my graduation in August. Cervantes is, of course, much heavier reading than Adams, though just as fun. Heavier, however, means less likely. Heinlein I haven't read in a long time, but it's a pretty long book, and not as humorous as Adams or Cervantes.

Pascal and Plutarch are much more serious, though in very different ways. Pascal can be agonizing, but fortunately he writes in little fragments (mainly because he died before he could finish the book, but still). Those fragments make for quick reading, but usually require much contemplation as well. Plutarch's various biographies occupy that awkward space between just a tad too long to read in one sitting and too short to devote serious energy to. I wrote one of my bigger papers at St. John's on Plutarch, so I do have a soft spot for him, and do tend to carry his Lives wherever I move around, but I rarely actually read them (even though there are many I haven't touched yet).

Honestly Do Intend to Pick Up Again Division

Montaigne - Essays
Nietzsche - Beyond Good and Evil
Whitman - Song of Myself

Now we're getting into the inner sanctum. Each of these three works I fully do intend to read at least part of. All three books come in larger volumes that I haven't read all of yet, so there's ample opportunity not only for review, but for new exploration. In fact, this summer I already started to read some Montaigne I hadn't read before, so it's far from absurd to imagine that might continue at some point.

As for Nietzsche and Whitman, those two may seem diametrically opposed in many ways, but they also represent two of the more influential works on my own way of thinking. Even though they would probably disagree about a great many things, it is indicative that both loved the music of Beethoven. So perhaps they are not so different after all. Smells like a post for a later time.

Books I Haven't Read Division

Plato - Laws

As with the other divisions, I'm leaving out some things here. In this case, the Laws just about sums it up. When will I read this? It's Plato's second longest dialogue - behind the Republic - and apparently one of his more complicated and enigmatic. Socrates, his usual star, isn't the chief interlocutor (and maybe isn't in it at all? Someone who has read it can let me know...), and it's subject-matter is, as always, heavy. Sometimes our aspirations outstrip possibility.

Reference Books and Religious Books

I won't list all of these, but a substantial portion of my current library is occupied by astrology reference books, a handful of music books, and some of the heavy-hitters from various religions.* All-in-all, these are the books I actually use most. The religious books probably could be fit more into some of the categories above, but the astrology books reside on the lowest shelf, closest to me, because I find myself referencing them whenever I'm running a chart.

* Bible, Rig Veda, Upanisads, Confucian Annalects, Discourses of Buddha, that kind of thing. I do have to admit that I have the New Testament in Greek, but not in English. Consequently, I also have my Greek-English Dictionary, which I will pretend is useful despite the Internet.

Astrology is a post for another time, however. For now, it's back to paper-writing and PhD application-completing.

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