PUP Book Chosen for Princeton Pre-Read

For incoming Princeton University freshmen, the first piece of required reading will come from the shelves here at Princeton University Press. As part of the university’s Pre-Read program, which was initiated last year by President Christopher L. Eisgruber, members of the class of 2018 will be reading Meaning in Life and Why It Matters by Susan Wolf.

So, what is the idea behind this book? When we pick up a friend from the airport, bake a chocolate cake, or visit a loved one in the hospital, we’re not doing it for our own self-interest or for the greater good. In fact, the reasons and things that make our lives worth living often have nothing to do with the egoistic or altruistic motives that most people, including philosophers, think drive people to act. According to Susan Wolf, meaningfulness—not happiness or morality—makes our lives worth living.

In Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, Wolf argues that meaning comes from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way. That is, we act out of love for objects that we rightly perceive as worthy of love—and it is these actions that give meaning to our lives. Wolf makes a compelling case that, along with happiness and morality, this kind of meaningfulness is an essential element of human well-being.

Princeton reports on the choice of Wolf’s book in a recent article, which includes the president’s thoughts on this year’s selection:

“It is a superb example of engaged, ethical writing, and I hope that it will introduce the freshmen to the kinds of scholarship they will encounter at Princeton,” President Eisgruber says. “The book also includes short critical comments by four distinguished scholars, along with reply from Wolf — as such, it models for students how one can disagree with a thesis in a way that is simultaneously rigorous, constructive and collegial. Finally, a key point in Wolf’s argument pertains to the objectivity of value and why it matters; that question is important, and it inspires lively argument among undergraduates.”

Read the full story from Princeton here.

 

Meaning in Life

 

Looking to find out more about this year’s selection?

Read the introduction of Meaning in Life and Why It Matters for yourself here. You can also check out a review of the book on the New York Times‘ Opinionator blog.

Launch of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics— “004″!

We were delighted to host the launch of the Fourth Edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics at the London Review Bookshop last Thursday evening. Contributors, well-wishers and lifelong fans gathered together to celebrate this magnificent book. Among them was the contributor on Poetry of Russia, Andrew Kahn, who was kind enough to share his admiration for this much-loved work in a speech:

“Like the appearance of a new James Bond film, the appearance of the fourth edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics—004!—is cause for jubilation.

 
This new edition is a magnificent book and achievement. Was there ever a work that taught us more about the ideal and the practical, the historical and the theoretical? Was there ever a work that in a single volume ranged across so many forms of the imagination? Perhaps the Bible, but then for many of its readers, and I include myself, the Princeton Encyclopedia is something of a Bible, containing revelations, divine writings, miracles of concision and lightly worn authority, the precepts of wisdom literature and abundant storytelling. Except that the God of Poetics wears her learning lightly. While deeply serious, and executed with great technical finish, this Good Book is a lovable and playful work. One would want to praise it in terms commensurate it with its contents and achievement. One would therefore want to be a ‘Meistersinger’ (p. 860) gripped by a ‘furor poeticus’ (p.531), ‘inspired’ (p.709) with ‘intensity’ (p. 710) to dithyrambic flights (p.371), to new heights of ‘agudeza’ (p.26), to praise Princeton Press ‘phonesthemically’ (p.1038) in rhyme, near rhyme or even ottava rima, to lavish ‘hovering accents’ (p.640) or devise hypograms (p.649), to roar with leonine rhymes or fire a cybertext, and then to repeat the pythiambic ode, a paplindrome of rispetto or, if you all joined in, to stage a ‘poetry slam’ (p.1070)—a Zulu izibongo (p. 1553) or an epinikion in the Pindaric mode.

 
It’s not news that the art of poetry has many rules and forms from ‘agudeza’ to ‘Zulu’. But the Princeton Encyclopedia always manages to make it new. This indispensable manual has a history of being savoured and cherished, and the fourth edition will instruct and inspire faithful users and new readers alike. Its reach is global–the expanded selection of national chapters bears witness to the universality and vitality of poetry. It’s worth its considerable weight in gold (but well priced so have no fear). But there’s a further aspect to the Princeton Encyclopedia that I find profoundly wonderful. Poetry as we see it assembled, explored, taxonomized, appreciated and renewed here is a mirror of civilizations and hearts and minds. It turns out that poetry is nothing less than the sum total of virtually everything that goes into thinking and writing about life. In fact, one has only to glance at topical chapters to see that poetry IS life because poetry goes hand in hand with anthropology, belief, culture, dance, gender, history, linguistics, music, painting, philosophy, politics, psychology, religion, science, technology and therapy. And if I might strike a personal note, there are many reference works about poetry, but there is only one that commands universal respect. Contributing a chapter on my subject, and writing an essayistic account of the lives and lines of the poets of Russia, was a privilege and uplifting responsibility.


Horace, a grand old man of poet legislators and sometimes a killjoy, says ‘Nil admirari est’—‘It’s better not to admire’. But the learning, style and sheer scale of Princeton Encyclopedia is worthy of Horace’s own famous Poetics, now fitted for our times yet ‘more lasting than bronze’. 007 may only have so many lives, 004 is imperishable! The contributors, editors and publishers deserve all our ungrudging admiration, congratulations and thanks for the latest incarnation of this tremendous work of learning and spirit.”

 
Andrew Kahn — Contributor, Poetry of Russia

Q&A with Sönke Johnsen

Quinn Fusting, PUP’s editorial assistant in the life sciences, has conducted a Q&A with Sönke Johnsen, the author of The Optics of Life: A Biologist’s Guide to Light in Nature.

Q: When, how, and why did you become interested in light?

A: I grew up in a house where we made just about everything, including science toys. My dad was a physicist, and we would spend weekends building pinhole shoebox cameras, arc lamps from dismantled batteries, and once even a solar hot dog cooker made out of a sledding saucer covered in aluminum foil. He would also bring home surplus items from his lab, like head-sized Fresnel lenses and chunks of sapphire lasers. He also set up a black-and-white darkroom in the attic where I spent much of my childhood and adolescence. My mother was creative as well and introduced me to painting, drawing, tie-dying and such. There were no computers yet, and our TV only got two channels (three if my little brother stood in just the right spot), so I had plenty of time to fiddle around.

As for why…well, light is beautiful. What’s more wonderful than the light filtered through new leaves on a windy, Spring day? Or the green bioluminescence trailing your limbs as you swim on a moonless night?  The stars alone are worth having eyes for. I can’t imagine not studying light. 

Q: What drove you to write an optics guide for biologists?

A: I’m not entirely sure. I do enjoy writing, but this was a lot of work, so there must have been a reason. When I pitched the project to my editor, I told her that it would fill a niche, but I’ve never been one to lose sleep over unfilled holes. I also told her that optics was important to biology. It is, but so what? Steve Vogel told me once that writing books is wonderful because it transforms you from a competitor into an enabler. I do hope this book helps people use optics in their research, but honestly I still feel competitive. Maybe I just want people to stop me in the hall and say, “Nice book!” I’d be lying if I said this didn’t matter. I’m shallow, and flattery goes a long way with me.

There’s more though. While not religious, I am often overcome by this world — it’s like being given a prize over and over. The most remarkable part to me is that we are able to appreciate and at least partially understand it. Being a biologist, I can mumble about scientific curiosity being an epiphenomenon of natural selection for cooperative hunting, foraging, individual recognition, and so on, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible. As the physicist Isidor Rabi said when the muon was discovered, “Who ordered that?” However we acquired this ability to appreciate and understand the world, it would be rude to waste it. So I wrote this book to share this feeling, this amazement at what is all around us.

Q: What would you say is the most important thing for biologists to know about optics?


A: That it’s easier to learn than you think. The long history of the field and its connection with human vision has left us with a horrible mess of units and concepts. Only in optics do people still publish papers using units like stilbs, nits, candelas, trolands, and my personal favorite, foot-lamberts. However, the reality of optics itself is simple and elegant. With the right introduction, you can sidestep the mess and get right to the fun parts.

However, light is also harder to work with than many people appreciate. The main reason for this is that we don’t measure light in our daily lives. Since childhood, we develop an intuitive sense of weights, lengths, area, temperature, and so on. For example, we can guess someone’s height to within 5% and weight to within 10%-20%. However, even after a decade of measuring light, I can’t tell you how bright my office is on this overcast morning to within even an order of magnitude. This is like saying that I can’t decide whether I am six or sixty feet tall. So you need to be careful. It’s worth it though. The biological world is a funhouse of optical tricks and traits just waiting to be discovered. Just today, I read that jumping spiders use image defocus to judge distance and that bowerbirds play with visual perspective to impress their mates. How cool is that? 

Q: What is light anyway?

A: I have no idea. I have thought about light since I was five years old and am no closer to understanding its fundamental nature. I am in good company though. Even Richard Feynman, one of the creators of the theory of how light and matter interact and widely acknowledged as one of the best explainers of physics, said that light cannot be understood. We have equations that let us predict what light will do to a precision of more than twenty significant figures, but no one has come up with a description of light that makes sense. It is unlikely that anyone ever will. Read enough about the subject, and your head will start to itch.

However, while the non-intuitive nature of light can be unsatisfying, it doesn’t affect our ability to use it. In other words, as long as you do your measurements and math correctly, you can think of light as little purple buffaloes and it won’t matter. After all, we don’t really understand the fundamental nature of anything, but manage just fine.

For Course Use: Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death

Adopted for Course Use

Søren Kierkegaard’s The SicknesKierkegaard covers Unto Death appeared in the Best of the Winter 2010 Course Lists from The Front Table, The Web Magazine of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores.

Check out our complete listing of Kierkegaard’s Writings