Dean Dolan’s Downloads

Jill Dolan, Dean of the College, Princeton University

Handling Knowledge: Princeton University Press and the Pleasure of the Book

Dean Dolan delivered these remarks at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Princeton University Press (PUP) Association, at Prospect House, on Princeton’s campus, on December 12, 2019.  She was invited to speak by the Press’s director, Christie Henry.

            I’m very honored to be speaking to you all on this occasion.

          Although I’ve only served on the PUP board for the last four-odd years, I’ve been attached to university presses my entire career.  As a humanities scholar, I’m part of the venerable tradition of a “book field,” as Chris Eisgruber noted when he called to ask me to chair the search for Peter Dougherty’s successor as Director at the Press, a search which, as you know, brought us the talented and remarkable Christie Henry.  I’ve never been so pleased to be in a book field as I was when Chris asked me to do that work.

But in fact, long before that rather academic designation, I saw myself as part of a broader identity formation as a “book person.”  I know I’m not the only one in this room who collected books.  Not first editions (not in my case); but everything I read I saved.  For much of my life, my books were more important than my furniture (or sometimes even more important than my relationships!).  I carted them everywhere I moved, growing numbers of boxes over increasing miles of distance.  When I finally decided it’d be more environmentally and economically sound to recycle or regift my fiction, I grieved nearly as much as I did when my dogs died.

When I became a dean, I decided to likewise address my academic books.  Before I moved into Morrison Hall, I forced myself to cull through my collection and drive the books that no longer seemed relevant to the public library.  That felt as much of an amputation as donating my fiction.

If fiction recalls my affective history, my academic books represent my intellectual history.  Giving some of them away meant I had to accept there were roads I’d never take, arguments and essays I wouldn’t pursue, and disciplines I’d never learn.  Still, nearly five years later, when I look at the books on my shelf, I see the gaps and absences, the missing titles and the missing choices I continue to mourn.

But I also see the volumes that remain, mementos of how I’ve constructed my academic life.  Theatre history and performance studies books lean against anthropology collections and ethnographies; the key texts of post-structuralist theory stand spine-to-spine with memoirs by feminist and queer scholars and activists.  Anthologies of plays remind me of the practices I engage as a scholar, and books about higher education—many of them from Peter’s series at the Press—chart my thinking as an administrator.  This genealogy of my evolution as a person lines my shelves.  I can’t imagine decorating an office without that history.

I’m sorry that so many Princeton students don’t seem to have these attachments to books as objects with which to cathect.  I don’t know if you’ve been in a student’s dorm room lately.  If they have bookshelves at all, they’re very small, a nominal bit of the furniture that comes with the room.  No extra plywood boards stretched between cinderblocks, groaning under the weight of all the required and desired reading.  Just a phone on a desk or a laptop on the bed.

When students participate in our seminars and they read their texts on their screens, we can’t see what they’ve annotated without the evidence of the actual book spread on the table before them.  We can’t see if they’ve earmarked the pages, or spilled coffee down the edges, or scrawled questions in the margins.

That’s a shame, because the state of the object reveals who they are in relation to it.  Looking at someone’s book is a view into their reading practices, which opens a window onto how they engage with the world.  Seeing what someone is reading—on a train or a bus, in a coffee shop or a library or a classroom—seeing the book tells us something about the person’s taste and their commitments.  Real books are social; they announce to others something of our substance.

I took a tour the University librarian, Anne Jarvis, recently lead of the magnificent Firestone Library.  In those beautifully renovated reading rooms, I loved seeing Princeton students gathered at tables large and small.  Students flock to the library; Anne notes that they like to work alone together.  But even in a library built to venerate books as objects, they read on their screens.

Don’t they miss the visceral effect of thick paper moving through their fingers?  Don’t they need to know that turning each page knits the passage of the story to the passing of time?  I want our students to understand that physical, elegiac pleasure, as well as the intellectual joy that attends to good writing and good reading.

Christie and I have talked about creating more internships at the Press for undergraduates, so they can learn how original scholarship is curated.  They might also learn how ideas are crafted into aesthetic vessels that bring them to readers, how they become objects that deliver scholarship through their heft and design.

I’m not a Luddite, really, I’m not.  And I know these practices are generational.  Boomers like me grew up with record albums, audiocassettes and videocassettes, and CDs and DVDs, as well as books.  We engaged and enjoyed culture through objects we collected and exchanged.

Our students travel so light, by comparison.

I want them to know the history of these technologies, and to understand why I and others like me love treating knowledge as something we can bring to hand.  I want them to appreciate what it means to have an archive of texts that our eyes know where to find on our shelves.  I want them to understand how a book’s presence inscribes it in a time and location in our histories, and how retrieving it through idiosyncratic, very analog methods of storing and accessing brings us delight.

 I hope all this gives you some idea of why I’m glad to be part of the Press board.  I love how we catalogue and market, craft and display the fruits of the hard work of producing knowledge.  I’m grateful to be part of such a vital circulation of thought and things, which spark the exhilarating ideas that change the world.


This entry was posted on February 14, 2020 in Uncategorized.