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Book Review: Desert Island Books from Princeton University Press

Stuart Mitchner

Look closely at the drawing of the arched gateway to Princeton University Press on the cover of A Century in Books, and you might be peering into the courtyard of an 18th or 19th-century English inn. Two weeks ago the handsome 94-year-old building on William Street was thronged with people celebrating the Press's one-hundredth anniversary. While observing the scene, which featured several distinctly 18th or 19th-century faces, I indulged in two flights of fancy. One was to imagine that some of the most illustrious figures associated with the Press's publishing history had traveled through time to join the celebration. Quite a crowd. Plato, Einstein, Dante, Jefferson, Jung, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Blake, Coleridge, Thoreau, Frank Lloyd Wright, Herman Melville. (A Century in Books makes no mention of the fact that in 1922 Princeton published limited first editions of two works by the author of Moby Dick .) After pondering who among those luminaries I'd have sought out for a few words of conversation (forget Plato, Dante, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky: the language barrier), and maybe an interview, I knew it had to be Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in spite of his reputation as a notoriously longwinded, downright unstoppable talker. The creator of the Ancient Mariner (who knew a thing or two himself about captive audiences) would have every reason to be in a glorious mood, knowing that he'd found a home at the Press and that the "flawed genius" asterisk beside his name has been removed once and for all by Princeton's massive, decades-in-the-making, recently completed 16 title/23-volume project (33 if you add the Notebooks ), which makes a formidable case for him as the preeminent man of letters of his century. I.A. Richards called Princeton's Coleridge enterprise "one of the noblest, most arduous and most promising of our times."

My other flight of fancy ran along the same lines: not who would you want to meet at a literary party, but whose company would you prefer if you were cut off from civilization. In the long-running BBC program called Desert Island Discs , people are asked to name the ten records they would take with them to a desert island. Most of us have probably at one time or another considered the same question in regard to books. The desert island idea led to thoughts of a Survivor spin-off where the contestants' staying power would depend on the quality of the books they packed, the survivors being those who had chosen wisely in contrast to those who suffered the consequences of having committed themselves to fatally misguided choices, like the Evelyn Waugh character whose fate is to spend the rest of his life in the jungle with nothing to read but the works of Charles Dickens.

Searching among the 100 works showcased in A Century in Books , I found nothing I'd have brought with me to a desert island, even if I had a steamer trunk. Books with titles like Spectral Analysis of Economic Time Series or The Consistency of the Axiom of Choice and of the Generalized Continuum-Hypothesis with the Axioms of Set Theory are not the sort you want to curl up with in a tent, even if they happen to be in your field. The books listed and described in the Press's centenary volume are those that, according to outgoing director Walter Lippincott's introduction, "best typify what has been most lasting, most defining, and most distinctive about our publishing." The range these works cover is truly impressive. Some are not merely books but intellectual events. According to my desert island criteria, however, books that, as the Press's news release puts it, "shaped 20th-century intellectual life" would not make particularly good company. Nor would plot-oriented escapist works of fiction (even those with literary stature). For the long haul it's best to have books you can move around in and authors speaking to you as if they were in the same room; for this, Keats's warm, buoyant, playful letters actually prove to be more compatible than his poems.

At least four Princeton authors would be on my list, however. I have already mentioned Melville. If the weight restrictions were reasonably liberal and I could make a case for a single author being equal to a single volume, I'd pack Princeton's The Illuminated Books of William Blake , and from Princeton's definitive editon of Thoreau's works I would probably choose Walden over the seven volumes of his journals because Thoreau is no less companionable a presence in his most famous book than he is in his journals. In Walden he says the "written word" is "something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art," the work "nearest to life itself. . . carved out of the breath of life itself." It's the presence of this quality of intimacy in Coleridge that makes the first two volumes of Princeton's multi-volume edition of the Notebooks my first choice for company on a desert island. Coleridge can reach across centuries, speaking to you one-on-one, making his concerns your concerns. The poet Elizabeth Bishop was responding to this quality in a letter about staying up late till two in the morning reading the correspondence "of that adorable man:" "His intestines are my intestines, his toothaches are my toothaches. I'd never realized how wonderful the letters could be in a book and how contemporary he sounds."

Coleridge's humanity, like Keats's and Shakespeare's, will never go out of date, will always be "contemporary." His notebooks contain spontaneous, unguarded, deeply personal (and usually universal) thoughts on practically all aspects of everyday existence, his own aches and pains, longings and frustrations. At the same time, he expresses himself on a range of subjects no less lofty, all-encompassing, and significant for his time than the range defined by the 100 works highlighted in A Century in Books . Besides being a poet, critic, and dauntless hiker, he was a biologist, botanist, diplomat, chemist, alchemist, linguist, political theorist, and preacher of sermons, as well as a highly popular lecturer on politics, religion, and literature who sometimes signed his letters, "S.T.C., gentleman poet and philosopher in a mist."

Coleridge's notebooks release a stream of consciousness that can mystify, surprise, and amuse, but that rarely leaves you at a distance from the instant of the writing, whether he's emptying his chamber pot out the window on a cold night in the Lake Country or picking up his infant son after a fall and running out of doors with him: "The Moon caught his eye--he ceased crying immediately--& his eyes & the tears in them, how they glittered in the moonlight!" In Thoreau's journals the consciousness doesn't stream; it's guided and composed. Coleridge's mind is all over the place, but wherever it flows, the breath of his life, the pulse of his thought, is always there. Thomas Carlyle once said that he wandered in conversation "like a man sailing on many currents." In the Notebooks you can wander with him, and if you're stuck on a desert island, what better companion for a bit of vicarious wandering than a man who thought nothing of walking 30 miles in a single day?

Perhaps the most stunning example of the size and scope of Princeton's monument to Coleridge is that six fat volumes were needed simply to contain the notes he scribbled in the margins of books. It took almost three decades just to assemble this man's marginalia, much of it written on the pages of books that did not belong to him. Here again the editors have captured the quick of his thought for us, giving us something more intimate and alive than "finished" volumes on the multitude of subjects he had theories about; it's refreshing to observe a great mind and spirit at play in the actual living instant, unfiltered, without a net: it's like a live performance compared to something rehearsed and recorded.

There's a catch involved here. Dipping into Princeton's Coleridge can be expensive. I've been able to afford the Notebooks and Marginalia mostly thanks to decades of U-store book sales featuring Princeton University Press books at bargain prices. To buy the same books now, either new or used, could cost as much as $490. Online, Princeton is asking $350 for Volume 5 of the Notebooks. Ex-library copies of various individual works can be had for under $100. The list prices on volumes of the Marginalia average $150. For this Princeton has a solution. They have rounded up a selection, titled it A Book I Value: Selected Marginalia , and released it in paperback for $18.95. Still, the best hope for finding these books at a relatively reasonable price is to haunt the U-Store, where Press sales of damaged copies or remainders are regular events.

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