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Celebrating Princeton University Press

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s a stretch, but you could say that Princeton University paid for my son’s birth while I was helping Alexander Leitch deliver the first Princeton Companion to Princeton University Press. In that sense, the Companion godfathered my son. And since Robert K. Durkee’s The New Princeton Companion reports that the Press was founded in 1905 with a loan from Charles Scribner II (Class of 1885), you could also say that Scribners — the publisher of Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway — godfathered (or godparented) the Press.

In 1911 Scribner gave land, an endowment, and a Collegiate Gothic building modeled on Antwerp, Belgium’s Plantin-Moretus Museum. A drawing of the courtyard entrance is featured on the cover of A Century in Books: Princeton University Press 1905-2005, which highlights 100 of the then-nearly 8,000 books it had published, from Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity (1922) to George Kennan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Russia Leaves the War (1956) and Robert Shiller’s Irrational Exuberance (2000).

A Centenary Echo

In 1922, at a time when the author of Moby Dick was still on the road to rediscovery, the Press published a limited first edition of Herman Melville’s John Marr and Other Poems, which receives a centenary echo in Up from the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times (Princeton $32) by Cornell professor of history and American studies Aaron Sachs. According to a press release, “Mumford helped spearhead Melville’s revival in the aftermath of World War I and the 1918–1919 flu pandemic, when American culture needed a forebear with a suitably dark vision. As Mumford’s career took off and he wrote books responding to the machine age, urban decay, world war, and environmental degradation, it was looking back to Melville’s confrontation with crises such as industrialization, slavery, and the Civil War that helped Mumford to see his own era clearly.” In a starred review, Kirkus calls the book “an incisive homage to the continuing relevance of two towering writers.”

Gawking at the Gawker

Writing in The New York Review of Books, Julian Barnes, the author of Flaubert’s Parrot, calls Bridget Alsdorf’s divertingly illustrated Gawkers: Art and Audience in Late Nineteenth-Century France (Princeton $60) a “rich, dense, wide-ranging survey,” wherein Alsdorf, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton, proves to be “an admirable close reader of images, clever at picking out, in a mass of bodies, a tiny figure who is doing nothing more than staring back at us, as if, across the centuries, he has spotted us gawking at him and is gawking back.”

Alsdorf is the author of Fellow Men: Fantin-Latour and the Problem of the Group in Nineteenth-Century French Painting (published by Princeton in 2012).

Warhol’s Gems

Decked out in a Pop Art shade of Warholian pink, another new book from the Press is Warhol-isms ($16.95), edited by Larry Warsh, who has been active in the art world for more than 30 years as a publisher and artist-collaborator. Warsh’s numerous other Press books include Jean-Michel Basquiat’s  Notebooks, Basquiat-isms, Weiwei-isms, Haring-isms, Futura-isms, Abloh-isms, and Arsham-isms. Some examples of Warhol gems, in which, in the publisher’s words, “a superficial embrace of superficiality often disguises provocative, unconventional ideas”:

I think an artist is anybody who does something well.
I went to [a psychiatrist] once, and he never called me back.
I’ve never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty.

Swinging London

Waterloo Sunrise: London from the Sixties to Thatcher (Princeton $39.95) by John Davis, an Emeritus Fellow in modern history and politics at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford, is titled after “Waterloo Sunset,” the love song to 1960s London by Ray Davies and the Kinks. In his introduction, “Why London, Why Now?” Davis refers to “the fusion of fashion and pop which produced the ‘youthquake’ in British popular culture in the sixties, and a similar effect became evident internationally as the Beatles and other British groups became global brands,” producing “an interest in Britain and British modernity which focused on London as the world’s ‘only truly modern city.’” According to James Campbell in the Wall Street Journal, “It is one of the pleasures of Waterloo Sunrise that it leaps from race and urban reorganization to fashion and fun. Mr. Davis is a wizard of the archives. The general reader will delight in his excavation of local newspapers in pursuit of treasures that illuminate whatever topic is under discussion, while diligent trawls through government reports are for a more specialized audience.”

Amos Oz

What Makes an Apple?: Six Conversations about Writing, Love, Guilt, and Other Pleasures (Princeton $19.95), translated by Jessica Cohen, contains talks about art and life between Amos Oz, a major figure in the Israeli “New Wave” movement in literature in the 1960s, and Shira Hadad, who worked closely with him as the editor of his final novel, Judas. “These revealing conversations … offer insight into the complex personality of a major literary figure,” according to Robert Alter, author of Nabokov and the Real World. “Their talks range over a wide variety of topics, from writing to sex to death, conveying a vivid sense of a man taking stock of his life and painfully aware of its approaching end.”

Oz (1939–2018) was a world-renowned novelist, essayist, and short-story writer whose books include A Tale of Love and Darkness, Scenes from Village Life, and How to Cure a Fanatic, which was published by Princeton in 2010. Hadad is an acclaimed editor of contemporary Israeli fiction and a screenwriter.

Taking On the Internet

In The Internet is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning (Princeton $24.95), Justin E.H. Smith offers, in the publisher’s words, “an original deep history of the internet, from the ancient to the modern world — uncovering its surprising origins in nature and centuries-old dreams of radically improving human life by outsourcing thinking to machines and communicating across vast distances.”

Says Stephen Fry: “We all know, or think we know, the scale of the problem of the internet. We all know, or think we know, who’s to blame. But it takes Justin Smith’s laser-like intelligence and profound knowledge of the history of ideas to show that we are almost certainly wrong. Oh how I wish everyone in Silicon Valley, everyone on Wall Street and, frankly, everyone everywhere, would read this.”

Smith is professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris. His books include Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason; The Philosopher: A History in Six Types; and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (all Princeton).

Honorable Mentions

Along with The New Princeton Companion, other spring 2022 Princeton titles that I’ve written about recently in Town Topics are Stanley Corngold’s The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton; Jhumpa Lahiri’s Translating Myself and Others; The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, edited by Reiner Stach and translated by Shelley Frisch; and In Praise of Good Bookstores by Jeff Deutsch.

This year on Princeton Reunions weekend, members of the Class of 1972 celebrated their 50th, and Class of 1997 their 25th, not to mention all those in between from 1962 to 2017. As this sampling of new titles makes clear, the publisher that began life above Marsh’s drug store on Nassau Street in 1905 will celebrate its 120th in 2025 as the world-class publisher of a world-class University.

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