Tuesday, April 3, 2012

I buy therefore I am

I was an English major in college. I like to read stories. And write about reading stories and sometimes write my own stories. Lindsay was a philosophy major. When we met, he was at the tail end of his senior year and I had one more to go. He was forever mumbling about some paper he was writing on the Marquis de Sade and something about Adorno and that funny math guy Leibniz and Rorty Rorty Rorty, the subject of his senior thesis. Who was this Rorty character and how could he be important if he was still alive? I was so self-involved with my D.H. Lawrence and my Chaucer that I never even bothered trying to understand what he was doing, just wishing that he'd hurry up and finish it so we could go sit on a roof and drink Carling Black Label and smoke cigarettes.

As we've moved from apartment to apartment to house in NYC, and then to Texas, we've carted most of our college books along with us. I know a lot of former college students get rid of their college books but we are in harmony on this point so neither calls the other out on it: "Why do we still have the Penguin Classic Boethius and the Norton Critical everything?" he never asks me. "Why do we have Quine's Word and Object and Heidegger's Basic Writings?" I never ask him. We are in silent agreement. When we are in our 80s and finally go back to get those doctorates we always meant to get, we'll have our dog-eared volumes strewn with barely decipherable marginalia at the ready.

We are not the only ones who cherish this dream. We went to an estate sale a while back that felt like a college bookstore going-out-of-business sale that happened to be held in a suburban tract house with a manicured square of lawn and a windmill out front. This guy had saved everything excellent, including lots of my beloved Modern Library books and vintage Signet paperbacks, and, surprise, surprise—Richard Rorty's Objectivity, Relativism and Truth. Lindsay snapped it up and tucked it under his arm. "Wait," I said. "You have that book." This I knew because I am the packer and unpacker of books. "No, I don't!" he said. "You're probably just mixing it up with Contingency Irony and Solidarity." I must've raised an eyebrow. "So what if I do have it? I'll send this copy to Jon" (a fellow philosophy major who went on to philosophy grad school and may well have his own copy of Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, though I think he was anti-Rorty, not that I know what that means). I looked at him like he was crazy and he went defensive: "I just want it, alright?"

Okay, I let it go. It's not rational. I hesitate to use such a loaded term in this context, especially as an irrational former English major, but it's not. The book is not rare or out-of-print. It's not expensive, or leather-bound or autographed. It's a book he already has, but it represents a past life, a familiar face unexpectedly bobbing up in a crowd. It's a nice feeling, right? And crikey, for just 25¢ what's the harm?

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