As the publication year comes to a close, we offer a few summer reading picks — including the Class of 2020’s “pre-read” book, by Danielle Allen ’93.
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BT: I’m Brett Tomlinson, the digital editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly
GL: And I’m Gregg Lange from the Great Class of 1970, who should know better.
BT: And this is the Rally ’Round the Cannon podcast, a podcast about Princeton’s history and the people behind it. In the July issue of the magazine we have quite a few mentions of alumni books as we head into the summer reading season, and we also have a mention of a book that is now a movie after quite a few years: Genius, which is based on a biography by Scott Berg, class of ’71, a piece that I believe began as his senior thesis.
GL: Absolutely correct.
BT: And after all these years it’s made it to the big screen, a major motion picture, so congratulations to him, and I look forward to seeing that. But Gregg, I thought this would be a good time for us to talk about some of our summer reading picks. I know you have a few, including this year’s pre-read for the incoming freshman class.
GL: You might argue it’s a little late in the game to figure out if the incoming freshmen can read, but Chris Eisgruber ’83 during his tenure as president has rallied the incoming class around a single book at the beginning of each fall called the pre-read, inevitably at Princeton, and the choices for that project over the last few years have been absolutely magnificent, very, very thought-provoking but very accessible and this year’s is an outstanding example even of that. It’s called Our Declaration, and it’s entirely about the Declaration of Independence, written by Danielle Allen of the class of 1993.
BT: Who was a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and is now is at Harvard University.
GL: Which means she knows a heck of a lot more than Brett and I, but that’s another discussion for another time. Anyway, it’s a wonderful book. It’s a very unusual take on the Declaration of Independence and effectively sets up a discussion between its two great ideas of liberty and equality and among other things argues that over the long haul liberty may have gotten a quite a bit better hearing the United States than equality and then goes on to discuss the various aspects of both of those, not to mention the nature of the document itself.
The one thing I found fascinating about it when it came out was her pointing out that with all of this background and as much as everyone in the United States pays at least lip service to the Declaration of Independence, (and as a matter of fact, many people I the U.S. think it’s law, which it’s not) that she, going all the way through Princeton, getting a Ph.D., the whole nin yards, had never actually read the document until she was teaching it in a night course at the University of Chicago as a professor. And what she saw at that juncture in her career stunned her and led to this and it's a fascinating way of looking at this with new eyes and thinking about all of the aspects of liberty, equality and human relationships that have actually been under discussion at Princeton this past year in regard to the shortcomings of Woodrow Wilson, not to mention a number of other people in our history.
And I certainly recommend it. It’s not difficult to read, very accessible, a wonderful thing to look at, and you can tune in in the fall as sessions with Professor Allen and Chris Eisgruber and the freshman class go on at Princeton. Those will be up on the web and you can compare your understanding with theirs.
BT: I guess I’ll go next. Speaking of notable professors, my pick was James McPherson, and everyone knows of Battle Cry of Freedom, the 1988 classic. I picked it up a few years ago because of all the 150th commemorations of various Civil War events, and it is absolutely everything you can ask for. It’s completely engrossing. I would imagine that a lot of the listeners to this podcast have already read it.
What I was going to recommend is more of a beach read, if you can think of Jim McPherson as a beach read, but a few years back, I think it was 2009, he put together a brief biography of Abraham Lincoln. It’s about 90-100 pages. You could knock it out in one afternoon, but it is just a really great read, amazingly thorough considering its length, and it is really something that was very useful for me to get a sense of Lincoln the man and his path to the presidency and then his experience as president. It‘s a really a worthwhile read and I suggest that folks give it a look.
GL: Jim McPherson happens to be an honorary classmate of mine. It probably will scare people to know that he was teaching back in the 1960s but he absolutely was. And he’s just a magnificent person and a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant teacher. Every word he puts down on paper is worth looking at.
BT: Well, do you have another one, Gregg?
GL: Speaking of which, I can go earlier than you can go. My reading, my first book for the summer, in preparation for writing about the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Princeton, which is next January, is again another beach-sized volume. So if it’s the weight you’re worried about and you don’t have your E-reader ready, this is The Campaign of Princeton 1776-1777 by Alfred Hoyt Bill, who lived in Princeton for many years in the middle of the century and it’s a brilliantly clear and quite nuanced presentation of all of the little things that were going on in the background surrounding the peculiar timing and events leading up to the battle of Princeton and afterwards, including a number of rival colonial generals trying to subvert Washington while he was in the middle of fighting the winter campaign. And the words winter campaign by the way in 1776 were a frightening idea and something extremely unusual in the warfare of the time for a whole range of reasons, most of which you can see in the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Anyway, very, very good book, very clear, really a broad vision of what was going on at that time and in case you ever wondered how all of this ended up happening and why it was so pivotal in the revolution, it’s a great book about that.
BT: Well, I think that’s a good list to get folks started. We’d love to hear about what you’re reading this summer, fiction, nonfiction, history, or other topics. You can leave a comment on this podcast at the website, paw.princeton.edu. The cover story and the bulk of the July issue is devoted to reunions, surprise, surprise, and Gregg, you’ve written about reunions in your Rally ’Round the Cannon Column. Can you give folks a little synopsis or teaser on what’s in store there?
GL: Well the way I thought I’d approach would be to simply mention some of the critical folks who appear in the column and see if you can figure out before I give you the answer at the end of this what the common element is, there’s only one that I know of among all of them.
Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Ferris Bueller, Albert Einstein, Moe Berg, Groucho Marx, William the Silent, John Insley Blair of Blair Arch, Credence Clearwater, and Princeton’s newest trustee, who is Azza Cohen of the great class of 2016. And as Brett knows, the common element is the P-rade of June 19, 1937. So, if you didn’t have that, you might want to flip to the webpage and take a look at the great story of how all of those come together.
BT: It requires a little more explanation than that, so yes, the only way to get the true threads that tie it all together is to check out Gregg’s column and if you’re looking for more summer reading, there are great opportunities to catch up on all the things you may have accidentally breezed past in PAW over the last year. We’re going to be on our Facebook page highlighting some of the most popular stories in an “In Case You Missed It” segment over the summer until the magazine returns in the fall.
GL: Great idea!
BT: I think that wraps it up for this episode.
GL: And we do remind you, as always, that this glorious podcast has been brought to you as a public service by those grand folks at the Princeton Alumni Weekly online.
BT: You’re too kind, Gregg. We’re not that grand.
GL: Speak for yourself.