November 20, 2002: Perspective

Princeton the second time around
An alum-turned-professor finds students could learn a thing or two

By Joel Achenbach ’82

Illustration by Henry Payne ’84

Joel Achenbach ’82, a Washington Post staff writer and author of five books, returned to Princeton this fall as a visiting Robbins Ferris Professor of Journalism. His preferred genres are humor and science writing – not necessarily together.


I'm briefly back on campus, teaching a class, and trying to participate in the university community. Cheered for the football team, laughed at the marching band’s jokes. Went to Opening Exercises in the chapel, lectures in McCosh 10. Had brief conversation with John Nash but forgot to mention any of my own ideas about game theory. Ducked into the Tap Room to see the Rockwell painting of Yankee Doodle and the photographs of Jimmy Stewart, Forrestal, Rummy, Brooke Shields, et al. Ate at Butler College, Prospect House, the Annex, Victor’s. The goal is to have the Total Princeton Experience.

My one regret is that I haven’t spoken to Cornel West. I see him everywhere, tall and thin, striding quickly in his three-piece suit, tilting forward, hands in his pockets. Increasingly I suspect that there is more than one of him. That’s how you know you’re huge in academia: when you can afford to have “doubles.”

A major preoccupation of the campus seems to be the drinking at the clubs. The allegation is that today’s college students imbibe alcoholic beverages prior to the age of 21. As we reel backward in disbelief we are further informed that they often do this drinking in excess. Why do they hang out in their clubs late at night and drink irresponsibly? You know the answer. Because those of us who are older and wiser have been too consumed with our own lives and our own careers to take the time to sit down with these young folks in a controlled environment and teach them how to drink irresponsibly. So they have to pick it up on the Street.

For me the campus is full of memories. I think of touch football on the green in front of Witherspoon, dance parties at Charter Club, romances briefer than a prepositional phrase. Some of these may actually be the memories of other people. As one gets older it helps to assimilate the memories of more interesting friends and colleagues. Memories, like houses, need the occasional upgrade or renovation. Soon I may add an entirely new wing: My Athletic Career.

As I wander among the gothic spires and archways, my fondest memory is of sleeping in the library. Others may have slept longer or more frequently in the library, but I doubt anyone slept more soundly.

Like consciousness itself, Firestone Library is an elegant structure perched atop a vast and sprawling subterranean complex. In the old days it was easy to find a comfortable place to “enter the arms of Morpheus” as we always called it. (In my day we spoke, as you know, primarily in Latin.) Best of all were the wooden desks on B and C floors, the ones with the soft, polished wood, worn down over generations. The surface felt cool and natural, the material derived from something organic and not synthesized in a chemical plant. When napping, you want a surface that breathes a little.

I was fond of the red leather armchairs in a small room on B level, tucked in a corner. The room was devoted to sporting books. For some reason you could smoke in there – perhaps it is more pleasurable to peruse the tales of athletes in a tobacco haze. I forget the name of the room, only that it honored the Princeton alumnus who gave the books. I’m thinking it was called the Lombardi Collection.

They were quaint books, for they discussed sports in an era when the mightiest college football teams in America were from Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. Once in a while a smoker would come into the sports room, but usually I had the place to myself, and would nod off happily, surrounded by tales of long-forgotten tennis champions and marvelous thoroughbreds and heroic yachtsmen.

Sometimes I’d repair to a comfortable wing chair in the Princetoniana room, then just off the main lobby. I could browse the reunion books – the Class of 1896 after 50 years, that sort of thing – and soon a serenity would envelop my being. Among the very old and the dead it is easy to sleep.

Many students preferred to sleep in the lecture halls. After lunch the attrition was greatest. Students dropped off one by one, the heads nodding forward, jerking back in a brief relapse of wakefulness, then nodding forward again, the process going through several full cycles before oblivion was achieved. A few would sleep with heads tilted all the way back, mouths open and aimed toward the ceiling, as though trying to catch a flung peanut.

You might find yourself in a lecture with a professor who had taught the same course for 70 years, having merely jotted in the margin of his notes the changed status of the Hapsburg Empire. Such a man could wipe out half the audience in 20 minutes.

Sleep, for me, was always an inextricable part of reading. The reading assignments were intended for someone of greater intellectual power, someone who grasped Rousseau, Foucault, Malraux. My eyes would skitter across the page without traction, a puck on ice. The solution: Pass out.

The best thing about sleeping in the library is that you have the ability, in theory, to wake up and start reading all those wonderful books. You aren’t permanently sleeping. You are temporarily not conscious, that’s all. By sleeping in the presence of books, you’re practically multitasking.

Now here’s the sad news. The library has changed since my day. The little nooks and crannies are largely gone. The room with the leather chairs and the sporting books has vanished, subsumed into some warren of offices. The little Princetoniana room with a wing chair is now an administrative office. The old wooden desks have been largely replaced by shinier, newer, sleeker furniture.

The library is still vast, and more beautiful than ever, but clearly an architect has moved through the place with an eye for making it brighter, more open, which means having fewer dark and isolated corners for sleeping.

And so the students don’t sleep. I’m telling you it’s heartbreaking. They grind away, tapping on laptops, taking notes, reading. You want to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. Someone needs to teach them the ropes, and I think I know who that someone is.




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