On Reading Weird Books in Public

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Republic Cover OutRobert Nozick closes The Examined Life with a story of how he, when eighteen or so, “carried around in the streets of Brooklyn a paperback copy of Plato’s Republic, front cover facing outward.” He’d hoped someone might notice and “be impressed, (and) pat me on the shoulder and say… I don’t know what exactly.”

We are philosophy professors. A large part of our job is reading. Often it’s classics like Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, and Descartes’ Meditations. And it’s even more so books by our contemporaries and colleagues. We read in our offices and at home, but we’ll take a book to a coffee shop or on a plane every so often. We’ve found that funny things happen when we do that, and it’s regularly not what Nozick at eighteen had hoped for.

We’ve been asked to review Brian Leiter’s Why Tolerate Religion? for The Philosopher’s Magazine (the review will be out in the Spring). Talisse has found that being seen reading the book in public creates unusual interest. Folks at the Starbucks across from Vanderbilt seemed positively befuddled by the book, as if to ask who would ask such a question? One person very audibly muttered, “Yeah, and why tolerate books like that?” Aikin accidentally left his copy on an airplane, tucked into the seatback pocket. When he’d returned for the book, it had been found by a flight attendant. She (only half-jokingly) reprimanded him for reading the book while flying. (The reasoning seems to be analogous to the no-atheists-in-foxholes argument.) Aikin’s story has occasioned some chuckles among our friends and even proposals that we bring along extra copies of similar books. We might, so the thought goes, leave at least one copy of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian or Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great on every plane we ride.

Different books yield different puzzlement. Talisse was reading Gerald Gaus’s hefty The Order of Public Reason in a coffee shop and someone asked if it was the new Harry Potter Book. Aikin has had multiple conversations with those curious about the symbolic logic book in his hand – what is symbolic logic? What use could it have? Can you really teach logic? Our reading groups are all too regularly confused with the Bible study group. Well, at least until they hear the discussion.

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