December 19, 2001: From the Editor

“Upon my walls I’ll have a row/Of 10, wise, magic books I know,/To bring all ages and all lands/Within the stretching of my hands.”

To wrote Princeton professor Charles W. Kennedy 1903 *1906 in his poem “A Homespun Heaven,” which appeared in his book The Walls of Hamelin. Upon reading this stanza, professor and Press Club adviser Christian Gauss set about asking Princeton faculty members which 10 “wise, magic” books they would have — if they were stranded on a desert island, a flourish Gauss added to attract media interest. Indeed, the exercise drew national attention and the very idea captured the American fancy, a sort of parlor game that exists to this day.

Twenty years after Gauss’s desert island question (and the answers) swept through the country, Princeton made headlines with another collection of books. In November 1943, President Dodds announced a “Christmas gift”: Princeton would send three books, free of charge, to any former student serving in the armed forces anywhere in the world. Each serviceman received a list of 70 books, with authors ranging from Darwin, St. Augustine, and Homer to Ring Lardner and Wilkie Collins, from which to choose, along with a letter from President Dodds that read in part: “They are not Princeton’s official ‘three-inch’ shelf of the ‘world’s best authors.’ Some of them hardly wear a cap and gown. But we think there is good reading, as well as entertainment, among them.”

The program created a minor sensation. Many newspapers ran the story as well as editorials praising the idea — “In how many far lands and under what strange cover will Princeton continue to delight her sons,” wrote the Richmond News Leader — and at least one ran the list. A Baltimore library displayed the books from the list with a sign urging, “Ask for these here.”

The men in uniform appreciated the gesture as well. More than 40 men accepted the offer. The top five requests were for Fourteen Great Detective Stories; Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms; Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; the three volumes of Shakespeare’s Complete Works; and Great Modern Short Stories. (For the complete list of books, click here.) Wrote one recipient: “I am writing this letter of great appreciation and gratitude for this gift. Not only will books help to pass otherwise empty evenings enjoyably, but they make me realize that fellows like myself who are serving in the States and overseas, and who ordinarily would have been at Princeton, have not been forgotten by the university, even though they may be 3,000 miles away.”

Though some days we barely feel fit to wear cap and gown, we hope that often you find good reading and entertainment in our pages, too. Happy holidays from all of us at PAW.


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