It should surprise no one who, like me, remembers James Billington ’50’s stirring Russian history lectures that 47 years later, he’s still got the right stuff (feature, Nov. 14). The nation is lucky to have him as its librarian of Congress, keeper of our cultural and intellectual flame.
My first Princeton epiphany was because of Professor Billington. I was a kid from the Midwest, where history was indifferently taught (often by sports coaches posing as teachers, who sank the subject and left most of us thinking it was boring and irrelevant). But Billington’s gift for bringing long-ago minds and events back to life set my mind on fire. He was the reason I ultimately decided to major in history — an excellent choice for a career as a journalist and writer. Through the decades I’ve lugged with me his classic Russian cultural history, The Icon and the Axe — but needn’t have, because it’s still in print and now available for the Kindle. When I think of Princeton, the special place it is and what it has given me, I think of Jim Billington.
My preceptor for that same Russian history course was S. Frederick Starr *68, later president of Oberlin College and founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. How many other universities in the world can match this kind of intellectual firepower for an impressionable freshman?