Trespassing in the library of a dead genius

John Kaag in Harper's:

ScreenHunter_549 Mar. 11 15.44Dozens of times over the past four years, I’ve made the drive from my home in Boston to a long-forgotten library in the middle of New Hampshire, accessible only by dirt road and hidden behind White Mountain pines. It once belonged to William Ernest Hocking, the last great idealist philosopher at Harvard, and though it contains irreplaceable volumes, it was known until recently only to a few of Hocking’s relatives and one very fastidious thief. And me.

I had come to Chocorua, New Hampshire, in 2009, to help plan a conference on William James. But I’m not a particularly dedicated philosopher and in general bore easily, so I soon found myself elsewhere: specifically, considering the virtues of theSchnecken at a German pastry shop. And this is where I found, browsing the scones, a man of ninety, wiry and sharp, who introduced himself as Bun Nickerson. Nickerson moved slowly, like most old philosophers do, but unlike most old philosophers his hobble wasn’t a function of longstanding inactivity. Instead, he explained, it was from farming and professional skiing.

I’m normally hesitant to say what I do for a living — “I teach philosophy” is often prelude to awkward silence — but Nickerson found my profession intriguing, because he’d grown up in a little house on a corner of a philosopher’s land. “Doctor Hocking’s land,” as he put it. Today, philosophers have arguments, office hours, books, articles, committee meetings, and the occasional student. Few of us have “land.” Nickerson made Hocking’s sound impressive and permanent, like the proper realm of a philosopher king: one stone manor house, six smaller summer cottages, two large barns, and one fishing pond with three beaver hutches, all situated on 400 acres of field and forest. Most seductively, Nickerson mentioned a library. Getting to see it struck me as a very good reason to skip out on my conference-planning responsibilities, so I climbed into Nickerson’s pickup and we bumped our way up the hill.

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