Sunday, July 09, 2006

Goldstone, Lawrence and Nancy. Used and rare: Travels in the book world. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1998. 215pp.

McGinn, Colin. The making of a philosopher: My journey through twentieth-century philosophy. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. 241 pp.

Two memoirs, both describing the entry of someone into a rarefied and highly selective world. The first, rare book collectors and the second, philosophers. Both are highly entertaining, amusing and stimulating and, for McGinn's in particular, thought provoking as well.

The Goldstone's book Used and Rare, is a light-hearted look at the husband and wife's entry into the world of rare book collecting, from just wanting a few nice-looking hardcovers for their shelves to exploring some second-hand stores, to going to high-priced auctions in various parts of the US. Lots of fun book talk to keep things moving, this memoir resonated with me quite a bit. While never a serious book collector myself, I have nibbled at the edges of the hobby a few times and I do have a few really good finds in my library. I also know a couple who have the bug pretty badly, so it's a fun look inside the world. The Goldstones have written a bunch of other books on the collecting world which I look forward to hunting down in the shops myself!

McGinn's story is a kind of philosophical coming of age tale -- going from being a working class kid in the English industrial heartland to a philosophy prof, first in the UK and then in the US. It's also a history of his branch of philosophy of language and mind in the later half of the twentieth century. The two parts mix reasonably well, if sometimes a little heavy on the philosophy and a little light on the life story. In any case, the book is well written and engaging, and you certainly don't have to be a philosophy expert to understand most of it; there's only a couple of parts I briefly had trouble following.

McGinn's claim to fame, "New Mysterianism" gets quite a bit of coverage near the end; the main idea is that humans are fundamentally and completely incabable of understanding our own mind and how it works, that cognitive science and philosophy of mind are fundamentally limited in what they will ever, in the entire future of humanity, be able to discover. Personally, whenever someone uses words like "never" in reference to such a new human endeavor as cognitive science, I get suspicious. It always sounds like someone at the beginning of the last century saying we would never be able to fly or understand the workings of the atom.


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