An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2014

I’m Not There

Ross Posnock
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ROSS POSNOCK, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2009, is the Anna Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. His books include The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James and the Challenge of Modernity (1991), Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (1998), and Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity (2006).

Perhaps, like me, you have a propensity to collect books without quite knowing why. Over the years I have piled up books by and about, say, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, George Santayana, Philip Roth, Ad Reinhardt, Philip Guston, Franz Rosenzweig, Penelope Fitzgerald, Thomas Bernhard–and not only not read them, but have no desire to do so. I have kept busy working on other things. And for a decade or two at a time, these texts simply gather dust on my shelves. But then, inevitably, I am drawn to these nearly forgotten volumes and, strangely, they prove pivotal to a new project: I recall, for instance, that Santayana ascended, literally, from the obscurity of a low shelf to earn a chapter in my book on William and Henry James. Wittgenstein made an analogous, if more circuitous, journey from the shadows, waiting untouched, until five years ago when I kept a long-held inner vow to read another languishing tome, one that had stared me down so often it had acquired an aura of intimidation: Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. It was indeed intimidating, but also inspiring: that experience opened the door to more Cavell–and to deeper engagements with Emerson–and to Wittgenstein, who has joined the sage of Concord as a central figure in my current project on writers, artists, and philosophers who renounce their careers.

The peculiarities of this manner of book buying– the absence of full consciousness and the long gap between acquisition and reading–puts me in mind . . .

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