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Priceless Books, Acclaimed Memoir They Inspired are Centerpiece of Event

EVENT POSTPONED - Discovery of Rare Volumes was Life-Altering for UMass Lowell Professor

Allen House
Prof. John Kaag will read from his new book at an event on Thursday, Feb. 9 at Allen House on South Campus.

01/26/2017

Media contacts:  Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944 or Nancy_Cicco@uml.edu and Christine Gillette, 978-934-2209 or Christine_Gillette@uml.edu

LOWELL, Mass. – Like the heroes of myth, John Kaag was primed for his own epic adventure. The treasure he found at his journey’s end produced an acclaimed memoir and transformed his life. The story behind it all will be the topic of a free event at UMass Lowell on Thursday, Feb. 9. 

The tale starts in 2009. Weighed down by the death of his estranged father and disillusioned with his crumbling marriage, the UMass Lowell philosophy professor 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 with an elderly gentleman Kaag met along the way gave him his answer.

At a stop in the White Mountains, 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. Intrigued, Kaag took a detour to the estate and explored the property.

What started as a lark led Kaag to his Holy Grail: Inside the library was a vast 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 none other than William James.

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

Kaag knew instantly he had 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. The effort bore considerable fruit. Over the next few years, immersed in the words of the world’s most famous minds, Kaag found his heart. He fell back in love with his work, all while falling in love with Carol Hay, a UMass Lowell philosophy professor who collaborated with him on the Hocking project.

“My time at West Wind taught me that philosophy matters in life. In fact, it could save a life,” he said.

Kaag’s book, “American Philosophy: A Love Story,” released a few months ago, has already 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.

On Thursday, Feb. 9, Kaag will talk about what it was like to uncover the priceless finds and read from his work at a free event for the campus and community. The program will include a question-and-answer session, book-signing, reception with the author and an exhibit of some of the Hocking Collection’s extraordinary books. 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.

“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,” said Kaag, who teaches introduction to philosophy, American philosophy and existentialism, among other topics. “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 Feb. 9 program is free and no tickets are required. It will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. at UMass Lowell’s Allen House, located at 2 Solomont Way on the university’s South Campus. Free parking is available in a lot at the corner of Wilder and Broadway streets, a short walk from the venue. As space is limited, members of the public interested in attending the event are asked to RSVP by Monday, Feb. 6 to Carolyn_Rolfe@uml.edu or call 978-934-4482.

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.

UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its more than 17,750 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be ready for work, for life and for all the world offers. www.uml.edu