These Princetonians wouldn’t miss the chance to spend their time at home this spring with a good book — or maybe a few

For those whose glass is half full, isolation can mean a chance to curl up with a good book. PAW asked alumni and some faculty members what they’re reading right now, and what they’d recommend to fellow Tigers. Here’s what they said. 

Humor and history

Steven J. Feldman ’68 is finishing up Princeton University: The First 250 Years by Don Oberdorfer ’52. Feldman writes that it's “an excellent overall history of Princeton University” with interesting facts and photos. Feldman is also reading the Everyman’s Library edition of The Arabian Nights, edited by Wen-chin Ouyang, and, “as a humorous sidelight,” comedian Jim Gaffigan’s Dad Is Fat.       

Mathematical puzzles of the ancients 

If one is looking for something that the University Press published, I have to recommend David Richeson’s Tales of Impossibility: The 2000-Year Quest to Solve the Mathematical Problems of Antiquity. It is the story of the work over the millennia on the classical Greek problems of squaring the circle, trisecting the angle, and duplicating the cube. Dave has had success writing an earlier volume on mathematics and its history, and this one is an even more epic story. Being stuck in the house makes finding the time for reading it much less of a task.  It is also useful to be reminded that having a feeling that something is doable doesn’t make it so.  — Thomas Drucker ’75, Whitewater, Wis. 

Trade linking the East and West 

I have been reading The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan, checked out of our library before quarantines started. It’s with me now until the end of May. The author is on the faculty at Oxford University, and I have learned lots from him. It starts well before the Common Era, and continues up to the 21st century. The theme weaving together the chapters is trade, whether furs, precious metals, or fine fabric from China as in the title; or, in the 20th century, oil from the Middle East. I would recommend this fresh treatment to anyone interested in learning more about non-western-centric world history.  — John Miller ’71, Bellingham, Washi. 

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Mark Twain writing about himself 

I’m reading papers for my nonfiction-writing course as they pour in from students’ homes in Kent, New South Wales, California, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ontario, and places closer to Princeton. These resilient students, confined as they may be, are finding things to write about in the coronal matrix — e.g., toilet paper, bicycling on empty streets in Brooklyn, unicycling the length of Manhattan. When not reading their work, I am currently reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light and, cyclically in segments forever, The Autobiography of Mark Twain.  — John McPhee ’53, Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence 

Reading Tolstoy together 

I’ve organized a virtual book club called Tolstoy Together in collaboration with the independent book publisher and lit magazine A Public Space. We are reading 12-15 pages a day, about 30 minutes, and we plan to finish the reading by mid-June. So far we have readers from all the continents, save Antarctica, reading along.  — Yiyun Li, professor of creative writing 

From Li’s message to the book group: In these coming weeks and months, when every one of us has to turn ourselves into a master of living through a harsh reality, I wonder if I could invite you to read and discuss War and Peace with me. I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide. In these times, one does want to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved in his writing.   

Other alumni write: 

Stephen T. Whelan ’68 is reading Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst, calling it “a crackling good novel, set in Greece during the year prior to the Nazi invasion” He’s also reading Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder, “the author’s account of his post-MBA career path to investing (and living) in post-Soviet Russia.”

Brooks S. McGill ’89* is reading Ghetto: The History of a Word by Daniel B. Schwartz, and writes that it should be considered for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. She’s also rereading Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.

Peter J. Matlon ’71* is reading The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "a rich and compelling novel that narrates American slavery and the Underground Railway through the eyes of a particularly gifted slave and his family.”

Mike Parish ’65 is reading Daniel DeFoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Albert Camus’s The Plague, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. 

John Ellis ’81 is reading Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels by Claire Chao ’83.  

John Fisher ’67 is rereading Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See and enjoying it “even more than when I first read it.” 

Betsy Smith ’03 is reading Juno’s Swans, by Princeton associate professor of English Tamsen Wolff, and adds, “I think I might have gotten the rec from PAW.” 

Brian Rayne ’84 is reading The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough.

Are you diving into a good book right now? Share what you’re reading with PAW so we can add it to this list. Email