Book Bag

Carlin Romano’s Philosophical Book Bag

In his new book, professor and critic Carlin Romano argues that America is the most idea-driven culture in the history of the world. He picks his five favorite off-the-beaten-path philosophy books. Plus, more of our Book Bags from Hilary Mantel and James Fallows.

Carlin Romano covers scores of philosophers and their extremely serious works in his new book, America the Philosophical. Here he notes five of his favorite idiosyncratic philosophy books—off the beaten path, but fun and illuminating.

The Psychology of Philosophers by Alexander Herzberg (1929)

A 1920s Berlin psychoanalyst rejects the idea that “repression of sex impulse” is “the origin of philosophical thought,” then goes on to catalogue the neuroses of 30 famous philosophers. Surprise—philosophers are “abnormal,” solitary, and unstable when not nasty, brutish, and short. You may know that Schopenhauer threw an old lady down the stairs, but had you heard that Rousseau accused his enemies of giving him invisible ink so he couldn’t write his Confessions?

On The Meaning of Life by Will Durant (1932)

Anyone who grew up with the Book of the Month Club knows Durant’s bestselling The Story of Philosophy, which helped establish Simon & Schuster as a publishing house. For this forgotten work, Durant wrote to scores of famous thinkers and asked them to reply to a single question: What is the meaning of life?

Will Rogers replied to someone named Bill Durant. Gandhi answered, “You have asked me to write at leisure and at length if I can. Unfortunately, I have no leisure and therefore writing at length is an impossibility.” Bertrand Russell replied, “At the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatsoever.”

The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of Their Thought by Ben-Ami Scharfstein (1980)

Scharfstein, an Israeli philosopher, took Nietzsche’s notion that philosophy is the lengthened shadow of a personality and ran with it. He examined how the early lives of 20 great philosophers betokened their thought, with attention to why Descartes wanted his omelettes made with eight-to-10-day-old eggs, why Spinoza staged spider fights while not leaving his house for three months, and other key biographical details.

John Dewey in China: To Teach and To Learn by Jessica Ching-Sze Wang (2007)

What would John Dewey have done if Mr. Chen had burst into his Chinese abode and asked for help? The great American progressive spent an unexpected two years in China (1919-21). Wang’s book, apart from its amusing reports of a great thinker on tour, provides a useful lens through which to view current U.S.-Chinese understandings and misunderstandings.

If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers by Jack Bowen (2010)

If you brake for big ideas, the flap copy declares, this is the paperback original for you. Bowen, a philosophy teacher at the Menlo School in California, has made an excellent case that when we’re stuck in traffic and the one-liner ahead sends our minds reeling—“Why Do Psychics Have to Ask For Your Name?” or “We Kill People to Show People That Killing People is Wrong”—we’re on the road to philosophy.

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For more Book Bags:

Hilary Mantel

James Fallows

Jennifer Egan

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