Princeton University’s 70 Books Project

By Rosalba Varallo Recchia

This post is part of a series on education and war related to our current exhibition, “Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War,” on display through June 2018. Please stop by to learn more.

War can interrupt education as military training replaces traditional curricula. While away from campus, many soldiers, even those not pursuing a degree, turn to books for diversion or solace, as well as to increase their knowledge. By 1943, many Princeton students were leaving the University to join the U.S. military. Many of those serving were being stationed overseas.   Princeton University and its faculty members made an effort to send a Christmas packet to students abroad, hoping to provide intellectual stimulation along with recreation.

A special, personalized bookplate identified these pocket editions as gifts from Princeton University. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 415, Folder 6.

The Christmas packet included three books the students selected from a list of 70 titles chosen by Princeton faculty members. All titles were restricted to pocket sized editions. The lists of books were chosen to offer entertainment to some 1200 undergraduate students and 100 graduates who left the University in different stages of their learning. All the books on the list were inexpensive and, according to Pres. Harold W. Dodds, were “chosen for their convenience of use rather than their elegance of format.”

Letter from Harold W. Dodds to “Princeton Students in War Service,” November 15, 1943. (Click to enlarge.) War Service Bureau Records (AC014), Box 73.

The list of books ranged from time honored classics by Shakespeare and Plato to contemporary works like Henry Steele Nevins and Allan Commager’s History of the United States, Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms, and John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. These were not Princeton’s “official” list of the “great books,” but those generally viewed as appealing across a broad audience, what they termed “good reading for any man.” Though some books proved more popular than others, every book was requested at least once. For prisoners of war, who could not request specific books, Princeton decided to send three volumes of Shakespeare, believing these were the least likely to be intercepted by German prison officials.

This text introduced the book list to students with an explanation of the choices made, including the rationale for not offering a pocket Bible or classics like Huckleberry Finn. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 415, Folder 6.

Charles R. Parmele III ’47 was hospitalized in Stark Central Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina when he received his gift. On May 9, 1945, he wrote to thank Princeton for the books: “I sometimes just sit and think and wonder how long it will be before I can start college, but with each passing day I can always say that I am one day closer to attending Princeton. Maybe it will not be too long before I will be able to start life anew as a freshman…”

Exhibit at Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Maryland, 1944. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP217, Image No. 5674.

The book list became influential far beyond its intent. Universities and libraries across the nation used Princeton’s “70 Books” lists as a guide for their own soldiers stationed at training camps and overseas. Editorials from Baltimore to San Francisco praised the book list and some newspapers even printed it in its entirety. People wrote to Princeton from all over the country to request the list, often mothers wanting suggestions for books to send their sons.

Memo from Alexander Leitch to Harold W. Dodds, November 18, 1944. (Click to enlarge.) Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 205, Folder 7.

To learn more responses to the challenges of World War II, please follow the links below.

Sources:

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Office of the President Records (AC117)

Office of the Vice President and Secretary Records (AC190)

War Service Bureau Records (AC014)

Related collection materials:

Council on Books in Wartime Records (MC038)

Parmele, Charles R. III ’47 oral history interview. Princetoniana Committee Oral History Project Records (AC259).

Related blog posts:

Armstrong, April. “‘The New Order’: How Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor (Briefly) Led to Women Enrolling in Classes at Princeton University.”

Armstrong, April. “Solitary Internment: Kentaro Ikeda ’44.”

Armstrong, April and Allie Lichterman. “Princeton University During World War II.”

van Rossum, Helene. “World War II Training on and off Campus.”

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