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A Priceless Discovery; Rare Volumes Bring Renewed Purpose for UMass Lowell Professor

Carol Hay and John Kaag Photo by Tory Germann
UMass Lowell Professor Prof. John Kaag poses with fellow Professor Carol Hay, with whom he conducted his work cataloging the Hocking Collection of rare books. The two fell in love while working on the project. 

02/05/2017
Eagle-Tribune

What began as an adventure for a UMass Lowell professor in 2009 has given rise to the discovery of a collection of rare books and a renewed sense of purpose for the educator.

In 2009, following the death of his estranged father and the breakup of his marriage, UMass Lowell philosophy professor John Kaag set out for New Hampshire to help organize a conference on 19th-century philosopher William James, who famously asked, “Is life worth living?”

A chance encounter in the White Mountains with an elderly gentleman gave Kaag his answer.

The man told Kaag that he had lived on the estate of William Hocking, a philosopher who focused on religion and professor who was prominent at the turn of the 20th century. Hocking’s home and private library, known as West Wind, was nearby. 

Kaag took a detour to the estate and explored the property. Inside the library, he found a trove of priceless, weather-worn books – some 10,000 of them – written by generations of the world’s greatest thinkers, including Rene Descartes, John Locke and Immanuel Kant.

Still other books bore the personal inscriptions of American authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost or had notes scribbled in the texts’ margins by William James.

“It was the biggest time capsule of American intellectual history I had ever seen,” Kaag said in a press release. “It was every philosopher’s dream: first editions from the 17th and 18th centuries, tucked away in the most beautiful setting.”

Kaag moved ahead to document and help preserve what he had found. With the Hocking family’s blessing, he began visiting the library regularly, researching and cataloging the books. 

Over the next few years, immersed in the words of the world’s most famous minds, Kaag fell back in love with his work. He also fell back in love personally, with Carol Hay, a UMass Lowell philosophy professor who collaborated with him on the project.

Kaag chronicles his journey in his memoir, “American Philosophy: A Love Story." Released a few months ago, it has been named Best Book of the Year by National Public Radio, Editor’s Choice by the New York Times and earned a starred Kirkus review.

The work – part memoir, part travelogue of the history of philosophy – chronicles his experiences and successful quest to bring more than 100 of the Hocking Collection’s books to UMass Lowell, where they are now permanently housed.

The texts donated to UMass Lowell by the Hocking family include first-edition publications by Descartes, Locke and philosopher Thomas Hobbes, along with annotated copies of books James referenced as he developed American pragmatism in the 19th century.

Kaag will talk about what it was like to uncover the priceless finds and read from his memoir at a free event on Thursday, March 9, from 4 to 6 p.m. at UMass Lowell’s Allen House, 2 Solomont Way on the university’s South Campus.

“I wrote the book in the hopes that philosophy could live again in people’s lives the way it did for Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau,” Kaag said in the statement. “Philosophers usually write for other philosophers. This book is written for just about anybody and I’m glad so many people are reading it.”

The program is presented by the UMass Lowell Philosophy Department, along with the Office of Advancement and the Dean's Office of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.