From the May 30, 2005, Princeton Weekly Bulletin
In 1905, the New York publisher Charles Scribner donated $1,000 in seed money to establish a publishing company in Princeton. Scribner, a member of Princeton’s class of 1875 and a highly successful commercial publisher, saw the need for a publishing house whose sole mission was to publish books that sparked intellectual debate and exploration.
A century later Princeton University Press is thriving, having published 8,000 titles that have provoked more than their share of educational and scholarly discoveries for readers.
To celebrate its centennial, the press has published “A Century in Books,” which highlights the 100 books that have been the most distinctive and significant in its history.
In the book’s introduction, Walter Lippincott, the press’ director, writes, “With this approach to this important anniversary, we are underscoring the fact that, in the end, a publisher is the sum of the books it has published.”
This year also is a milestone for Lippincott, who is retiring after 19 years as director of the press. Peter Dougherty, who has been an editor and a group publisher at the press since 1992, will take over as director on July 1.
“Walter Lippincott led an editorial effort that has kept Princeton in the forefront of scholarly book publishers in its historically strong fields such as mathematics, the humanities and history, while moving us to the forefront in relatively new fields such as economics,” Dougherty said. “And he has succeeded in general interest publishing while retaining the press’ scholarly emphasis — a rare feat these days.”
From Einstein to Shiller
Princeton University Press, which was born in an office over a drugstore, published its first book in 1912, an edition of speeches by Princeton President John Witherspoon titled “Lectures on Moral Philosophy.” In its early years, the press printed the Princeton Alumni Weekly, local newspapers and the University’s course catalog. Though it started mainly as a publisher of books by Princeton faculty members, the press became one of the leading university publishers in the nation, issuing more than 200 titles a year in more than 25 scholarly fields. (For more on the press’ history, see “By the numbers.”)
The press is a separate entity from the University, with its own endowment, but it is closely connected to Princeton. Its five-member editorial board, which approves the books the press publishes, is appointed from the faculty by the president of the University, and nine of the 15 members of its board of trustees must have a connection to the University.
To select 100 of the press’ titles to highlight in “A Century in Books,” published in April, editors sought suggestions from current and former employees, current and former members of its board, and academics inside and outside the University. The result is an eclectic list that includes well-known titles such as Albert Einstein’s “The Meaning of Relativity,” published in 1922 and still in print, and surprising finds such as “Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film,” published in 1992. (Written by Carol Clover, the popular text for film students argues that viewers of horror films sympathize with the female victims, not the tormentors.)
“Prize-winners, million-sellers and even some household names have been left off” the list, Lippincott writes in his introduction. One book not on the list that has received considerable attention lately is Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bull—” (see related article).
The 100 titles cover dozens of topics, from Bali to the birds of Colombia, from the Tyrannosaurus rex to Tocqueville, from Morse theory to morphogenesis.
Many works on the list made profound impacts in their academic fields and beyond, including “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” written by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in 1944, and George Kennan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Soviet-American relations, published in 1956.
Recent titles that have gained widespread acclaim include “Making Democracy Work” (1993) by Robert Putnam, which was hailed as the modern successor to Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” and “Irrational Exuberance” (2000) by Robert Shiller, which predicted the collapse of the stock market. Shiller’s book has sold 65,000 copies. A new edition of the book, published in April, predicts that the current boom in the real estate market will go bust much the way technology stocks did.
Although the press rarely publishes fiction, it introduced the English-speaking world to Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska when it brought out “Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems” in 1981, 15 years before she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Two of the press’ most ambitious publishing projects are included in the top 100: the publication of the complete collected papers of Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein. Thirty-two volumes of Jefferson’s correspondence and papers have been published since 1950; the press anticipates completing the project in 2026 with volume number 72. Nine volumes of Einstein’s papers have been published so far, of a projected total of 29.
Also included on the list is “A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing,” written in 1977 by Elaine Showalter, the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities Emeritus. The book established a new area of literary criticism by arguing that fiction by women should be studied on its own. There are several other books on the list by Princeton professors, as well as an essay by Michael Wood, the Charles Straut Professor of English, about the impact of intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany and went on to produce important scholarly work for the press.
The book also includes an essay on the press’ contributions to history, politics and culture written by Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He writes, “At a time when outside critics of the academy rant on and on about the politicization of scholarship, the hegemony of jargon and the abandonment of standards, the press has maintained a great tradition in history and politics. Its editors and advisers have managed to combine broad interests, a focus on questions of public as well as intellectual concern, and a willingness to take chances with an absolute commitment to rigorous refereeing, precise editing and printing, and handsome, distinctive design.”
Nineteen years at the helm
In nearly two decades at the press, Lippincott has kept the company in solid financial condition while enhancing its prominence in political science, math and philosophy.
“Walter’s careful management of resources has created a legacy of financial strength which leaves the press ideally positioned to address the challenges of its next hundred years,” said Christopher McCrudden, a member of the press’ board of trustees and Princeton’s treasurer.
One of Lippincott’s greatest accomplishments is the relatively recent rise of a very strong list in economics.
“In the last 20 years we have started publishing in economics, and I think we now have one of the very best — if not the best — lists in economics,” said Lippincott, a member of the Princeton class of 1960.
“Walter Lippincott has directed Princeton University Press with imagination and great energy,” said Drake McFeely, president and chair of W.W. Norton in New York, who chairs the press’ board of trustees. “His nearly 20-year career includes many signal accomplishments, but he will perhaps be best known as a talent scout, as he has hired and managed some of the finest people in the business. The direct beneficiary, of course, is the press’ list, a publishing program broader, stronger and more distinguished in many important ways than it was when Walter arrived. Beyond Princeton, Walter has been known for his keen interest in the challenges facing university presses collectively and his generous counsel to his fellow press directors.”
Lippincott has led the press during a period of rapid change in the book industry. Libraries have dramatically reduced the number of monographs they purchase, which has posed financial challenges for all university presses and forced them to look to broaden their markets. On a positive note, the advent of the Internet has meant that buyers all over the world have easy access to university press titles that are not on the shelves of their local bookstores.
Five years ago Lippincott opened an editorial office in Britain to substantially increase the number of internationally based scholars on the press’ list. The office’s two editors commission books on economics, philosophy, political theory and classics, while the marketing department publicizes the press’ titles throughout Europe.
“The world of scholarly publishing is becoming more international,” Lippincott said. “I would think over the next decade we would have another office in Asia.”
Once he retires in June, Lippincott plans to do some traveling abroad and may audit classes in history or literature at the University. And he will be devoting a great deal of time to the field — other than books — about which he is most passionate: opera.
“I’m planning to do some serious listening,” he said.
A free copy of “A Century in Books” is available for downloading online.