A great love from my university years was a wooden bookshelf I attended to with scholarly devotion. The shelves were stocked with the best works of philosophy, including an impressive collection of Plato’s complete dialogues. But as the college years slipped into the past, the bookshelf ceased acting as a portal into the minds of philosophy’s greatest thinkers and became the resting place of my abandoned college library.
After graduation, I realized life in the Ivory Tower wasn’t for me. My time with the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Nietzsche had left me with a burgeoning curiosity that could only be satisfied by something outside of the classroom. I was still looking for whatever that was. But with a move approaching and no space in my new digs for an old college library, I had to decide the fate of my works of philosophy—the remnants of a past life.
I was struck by an old paperback when reviewing the contents of my shelves—Aristotle’s De Anima, or On the Soul, a book discovered at the Symposia, a local community bookstore—a few blocks from the Hudson River, in Hoboken, New Jersey. The pages were yellowed—cover partially bent and notes from the past owner in the margins. It had helped me ace an Ancient Philosophy course at Rutgers.
At the Symposia, I had indulged my passion for all things philosophy. But it had been four years since I stepped through its doors, so I went back to see if they were still accepting donations. I stuffed some philosophy into a backpack: Logic for Dummies, Utilitarianism and even a self-help book from a relative that found its way into my library. With the zippers strained, I lumbered towards the bookstore.
Inside, the Symposia looked the same, with floor to wall bookshelves and more books than space. I felt myself being drawn in like the first time. It was the kind of place that resisted reinvention, clinging to the idea that books should continue to be a tangible part of our lives.
This time I didn’t bolt straight to the back shelves and the philosophy section. Feeling the weight of my books slung over my shoulder, I looked for assistance. And that’s when an older gentleman appeared and we struck up a conversation.
His name was John—and I didn’t remember ever seeing him here. He instructed me to place my bag of books on the floor next to the front desk, beside other people’s donations. As he went outside for a smoke, I followed him, and we continued to talk. There was a freezing rain coming down as we huddled under the store’s awning. John gave me some background on this non-profit, community bookstore.
He told me customers would come up to him and say:
“I need a book that can change my life.”
Or: “I haven’t read a book for six years and need help finding something.”
John was not the kind of dude who would swipe your credit card and ask you for a membership and your email. He told me they carefully examine all the donations. He told me they offer tax write-offs and have community events, but as he continued, I couldn’t help but think about those people approaching him, browsing through the Symposia as I once did. What were they after—what brought them here looking for a life-changing book? I asked John about the circumstances surrounding those customers, and he avoided sharing any personal details—perhaps a sacred Symposia pact between John and those who sought his guidance.
I imagined my philosophy library displayed here—Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, a particular favorite of mine, calling out to a prospective owner. A college kid pulling down Nietzsche. On the cover, Friedrich’s large bushy mustache crawling around his face, like a giant hairy caterpillar. The young man opening my college copy of Beyond Good and Evil and reading the first line of the Introduction:
Supposing truth is a woman – what then?
The young man reads on, eyes drawn to my highlights, impromptu notes and scribbles in the margin—next to one of Nietzsche’s famous aphorisms. It’s like a conversation between the author, my college self, and a new owner. Maybe there’s something to this Nietzsche guy with the weird German name and funny mustache, the young man thinks. Maybe he plucks BGE off the shelf and takes it home. Maybe next semester his schedule fills up with philosophy courses.
As John continued his tour, I told him I came here while studying at Rutgers, dragging my college girlfriend to the Symposia while I perused the back shelves. And I would always discover an absolute gem. A guidebook on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason helped me unlock the esotericism surrounding Kant’s core ideas. Another awesome find like Aristotle’s On the Soul helped me through yet another course.
John disappeared into the back, leaving only me and another customer—a woman looking for a children’s book in Spanish. So, with the philosophy section all to myself, I made my way over. I had never appreciated the time spent there. With the exception of the classroom at Rutgers, philosophy had been a solitary endeavor.
But the Symposia offered intellectual communion outside of campus through the orphaned works lining its walls. In a small but meaningful way, these back-shelves still provided a connection to past owners and a shared passion. As I stood among those works, a youthful enthusiasm began percolating, surfacing as a love for all things philosophy—the old college feeling.
I peeled open a book on the Presocratics hanging off the shelf—the smell of the old pages drawing me into another daydream. I’m in Ancient Greece and as my eyes reopen, the turquoise Aegean appears. I’m wearing a flowing white toga, leather sandals, and of course, the distinctive philosopher’s beard. I can taste the salty air on my lips and feel the sun punishing my olive skin. A stirring starts in my belly and shoots through my bones—like the gods have breathed life into me.
Opening my eyes—day-dream fading, I saw that the philosophy shelves were much sparser than I remembered as a college student. For all the wonderful literature, nonfiction, children’s books, and DVDs refusing digital appropriation, the philosophy section was in need of some help. I knew what I had to do.
It was my duty to donate my philosophy library.
Back home I stood in front of my bookshelf. On an impulse I pulled one of the texts off the shelf, the first time I had grabbed a piece of philosophy in a long time. It was a book on Rene Descartes. I found my way to an apt quote by the French philosopher.
The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.
I looked forward to restoring works like this and others to the back shelves, where I had discovered them years ago. Returning to Symposia with two bins on a dolly, I told John I wanted to donate my philosophy library. I trusted him with their fate.
He told me they’d love to have them, and we shook hands.
Leaving, I glanced over my shoulder and bid the philosophy section farewell. I knew my old beloved books would be in good hands, where they could have a shot at changing someone’s life.
Back home, some remaining books lay scattered across the emptied shelves. I had held on to a selection of essential works from Nietzsche, Plato, and Descartes. I wanted those books to share space with a new love in my life: literature—the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Kerouac.
And while I felt guilty dissembling the old wooden bookshelf, probably destined for an inglorious end in a New Jersey landfill—I felt a sense of excitement. I possessed the best of an old library and now, the beginnings of a new one.
Jesse Winter is a 30 year old writer from New Jersey. Aside from writing narrative non-fiction and the occasional short story, he works as a teacher.
Jesse would like to honor the memory of his late best friend Ryan McAdam—whose wit, humor and unrivaled charm influenced him immeasurably and whose encouragement gave him the confidence to explore his voice through writing.
If you enjoyed The Symposia, leave a comment and let Jesse know.
Read Jesse Winter‘s previously published work below:
Those Black-Framed Glasses
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