From the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Libraries are often seen as places of wonder, mystery, and excitement. John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story credits a library with all these things, as well as for being the backdrop for an existential crisis, the end of a marriage, the spark of new love, and contracting Lyme disease. The book traces Kaag’s discovery of a largely forgotten library owned by a largely forgotten Harvard philosopher, William Ernest Hocking, on a remote estate in a dark wood in New Hampshire. Kaag found the library full of mouse droppings and rotting books, including extremely rare first editions of Descartes and Kant with handwritten notes from Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and William James. He wasn’t the first to trespass upon the library, however, nor to recognize its importance. A heroin addict stole 400 of the books worth more than $250,000, and succeeded in selling some of them before the FBI tracked him down.
While Kaag’s previous two books were also about American philosophy — one on Charles Sanders Peirce and imagination, the other an introduction to Ella Lyman Cabot’s philosophy — this is his first memoir-style book. NPR nominated it as one of the Best Books of 2016, it was listed as a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and in April 2017 it was one of the top 10 nonfiction audiobooks on Audible.com.
SKYE C. CLEARY: Why did you write this book?
JOHN KAAG: Philosophy often gets pooh-poohed as the most useless of subjects — impractical, impersonal, intentionally arcane. But it’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be. I wanted to explain how philosophy could inform a human life or, in my case, save one.
Tell me more about the person who gets saved in American Philosophy: A Love Story.
Sure. In 2009, I was a complete mess. My father died, my first marriage was a shambles, and I tried to commit suicide — that didn’t go in the book. Then I came across a private, largely abandoned, library in the heart of the White Mountains, which was chock-full of American philosophy — from Emerson to Whitman to William James — and my life started, very slowly, turning around.