I, Meme, Mine

Scott McLemee looks for favorite books on his shelves -- none of them about memetics.

June 28, 2005

Until recently, you got two sorts of responses if you plugged "Intellectual Affairs" into Google. One, of course, is a list of sites where that phrase appears -- including quite earlier numbers of this column, but perhaps an equal number for Benjamin Barber's memoir "The Truth to Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House."

The other result was a string of advertisements for online services offering to hook you up with married people in your area. For now, anyway, those ads have disappeared -- perhaps as the result of some tweak in Google's famous algorithms. In any case, they came as a surprise. But my wife (who has forgotten more about search engines I will ever know) rolled her eyes and said, "I knew it was going to happen when you named the column that."

Ex post facto, it does seem obvious. After all "intellectual" doesn't count for much,  product-placement-wise. In the American vernacular, it is a word usually accompanied by such modifiers as "pseudo" and "so-called" (just as the sea in Homer is always described as "wine-dark").
No doubt the Google algorithm, if tweaked a bit more, will one day lead you right to the personals ads for the New York Review of Books. For now, at least, the offers for a carnal carnival cruise are gone.

Meanwhile, Inside Higher Ed has now launched a page with a running list of Intellectual Affairs columns from February to the present. It has more than three dozen items, so far -- an assortment of essays, interviews, causeries, feuilletons, and uncategorizable thumbsuckers ... all in one central location, suitable for bookmarking.

It's also worth mentioning that Inside Higher Ed itself now offers RSS and XML feeds. (The editors are too busy or diffident to announce this, but some public notice of it is overdue.) To sign up, go to the home page and look for the buttons at the bottom.

This might also be a good time to invite readers to submit tips for Intellectual Affairs -- your thoughts on subjects to cover, books to examine, arguments to follow, people to interview. This column will strive, in coming months, to be equal parts Dennis Diderot and Walter Winchell. Your brilliant insights, unconfirmed hunches, and unsubstantiated hearsay are more than welcome. (Of course, that means I'll have to go confirm and substantiate them, but such is the nature of the gig.) Direct your mail here.

Word has it that IA is going to be tapped by Emily Gordon, of the Emdashes blog, for the current "book meme" -- a circulating questionnaire that invites participants to list what they've bought and read lately.

As you may recall, the field of memetics came into a certain short-lived prominence some years ago - one of those cases of an extended metaphor morphing into something like a school of thought. It rested on an analogy between ideas and genetic material. Concepts, ideologies, and trends were self-replicating "memes" that propagated themselves by spreading through cultural host populations, like mononucleosis at a rave.

Memetics itself hasn't had all that much staying power; it seems, by and large, to have gone the way of the Y2K survival kit. But the term "meme" has, paradoxically enough, proven much hardier -- particularly in the blogosphere. (One theory is that it appeals to bloggers because it has "me" in it, twice.)

So anyway, my responses to the meme, forthwith.

How many books have you owned?

This I cannot answer with any confidence. At present, I have somewhere between three and four thousand. Over the years, I have made regular efforts to clear room by selling or giving large numbers of books away. A few months ago, for example, I parted with about a thousand of them. 

Such a purge feels good, once the initial hesitation is overcome. There is even a kind of giddiness, as the herd begins to thin. But afterwards, I always have pangs of regret. When you need it, a missing title is like a phantom limb. There's a maddening and persistent itch you can no longer scratch.

The remaining volumes are arranged alphabetically by author's name - with certain exceptions. For example, there is about half a shelf containing collections of papers on postcolonialism, post-Fordism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism. These are planted right next to some titles by the neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz. (I like to imagine that these books make each other really uncomfortable.)

What is the last book you bought?

That would be a set of eight rather hefty pamphlets called The Key to Love and Sex (1928) by Joseph McCabe, whose 40-volume series The Key to Culture (1927) is proving somewhat more difficult to collect. I am also awaiting the arrival of McCabe's autobiography Eighty Years a Rebel, first published in 1947 -- and, like most of his work, long since out of print.

McCabe is now all but completely forgotten, but in his prime he was a force of nature. Born into a working-class family in Manchester, England, McCabe entered a Franciscan monastery at the age of 15 and became a professor of philosophy for the order. After years of private dialectical wrangling, he
concluded that God did not exist. That meant starting over at the age of 27. Whatever anguish his years as a monk cost him, the experience left McCabe with a command of languages and powers of concentration that almost defy imagining.

Apart from translating about 30 volumes of literary, scientific, historical, and philosophical work, McCabe wrote a staggering array of books and pamphlets. Many of his books were works of popularization, but several were specialized works of scholarship in their own right. He was also a tireless lecturer and debater -- as aggressive a spokesman for secular rationality as one can imagine.

H.G. Wells called McCabe "the trained athlete of disbelief." That was, if anything, an understatement. For an admiring (indeed, almost hagiographical) account of his life and work, see Bill Cooke's recent biographical study A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism (Prometheus Books).

Name five books that mean a lot to you.

The list would come out differently with a little more thought. But off the top of my head, and in chronological order of their discovery, I'd name:

  • The Modern Library edition of Franz Kafka's short stories. How this ended up in a rural high school in the Bible Belt is still something of a mystery. I started reading Kafka in the best possible way - that is, with no idea who he was, or what reputation he might have. (Of course, he had no reputationat all in East Texas, come to think of it.) This made the shock of revelation that much more keen.
  • Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation. Same high school, different year. (Escape plans forming.) Apart from the cool grace of her own style, Sontag's early essays provided a reading list of figures such as Barthes, Benjamin, Lukacs, and Foucault. It was a much more lively engagement with their concerns than anything I've encountered at, say, MLA over the years.
  • Seymour Krim, Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer. Part old-fashioned New York intellectual, part Beat hipster, Seymour Krim wrote this batch of critical and personal essays in the 1950s, long before the term "creative nonfiction" made its inexplicable appearance on the creative-writing scene. (Nothing he published afterwards was even half as good.) I'm almost reluctant to mention this volume in public. Rereading Views has been an occasional private ritual of mine for almost 25 years..
  • Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change. There is scarcely a word that begins to describe this book from the 1930s. Burke tried to fuse Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Veblen, George Herbert Mead, and who knows what else into a theory that would help him understand what was going on (1) in the world at large and (2) between his own ears. (Not long after the Great Depression started, his marriage disintegrated. Burke had a lot to theorize about, in other words.) This is in the category of books that I keep around in two copies: one filled with annotations, the other kept unmarked for reading without distraction.
  • C. L. R. James, Spheres of Existence. This anthology of political and cultural writings (the last of three volumes of James's selected works) was my first introduction to a revolutionary activist, historian, and thinker whose legacy only looks more important with time. (For a biographical overview, go here. [ www.mclemee.com/id84.html ) Sinceencountering Spheres, I've spent years on research into James's life and work, and edited a couple of volumes of his writings, neither of which was half as good as Spheres. It really ought to be back in print.

What are you reading now?

Various things by and about Joseph McCabe, that freethinking workaholic. Not long ago, I bought a pamphlet by McCabe called The Meaning of Existentialism (1946). At lunch last week with some mutual friends, I showed it to Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber, who seemed amused by the work's long, explanatory subtitle: "The New Philosophy, Founded by Sartre, That Has Made Quick Progress Among the Volatile Young Men of Paris' Latin Quarter."

After hearing my thumbnail biographical lecture, Henry started reading the booklet. After a couple of pages, he looked up and said, with evident surprise, "This is pretty good! It isn't hackwork."

Indeed not. As an overview of Sartre's thought, it was probably as good as anything in English at the time. And McCabe was nearly 80 years old when he wrote it. (He was down to publishing only a few hundred thousand words a year.)

That's why I have adopted a new motto to get through each day. It's short, simple, and easy to remember: "What would Joseph McCabe do?"

The nature of this sort of meme is that I should, at this point, invite four or five people to answer the same questions. Please note the comments field below, and consider yourself invited.


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