Aside from books about the University itself, there aren’t many books that are well and thorough situated and saturated in New Jersey (thanks, band, for the reference). This list includes fiction set on or mostly near campus, history of math and science that involves Princeton based figures, and books that capture some of the zeitgeist (like Carril’s book) of life in orange and black. Comments, additions and editions welcome.
“Rule of Four,” Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
It’s the Princeton answer to Dan Brown. Some of the characters, in particular the female supporting cast, are lacking in depth, but if you’re looking for something that moves with the puzzle-in-the real world complexity of “DaVinci Code” without the heavy handed ness, “Rule of Four” delivers. Scenes in the steam tunnels beneath the Princeton campus are accurate (according to those who so explored).
“The Mind-Body Problem”, Rebecca Goldstein
A wonderful book by a Princetonian about discovering identity and faith in the midst of conflicting science and ivory tower isolation. The opening sequence in the book is one of my favorites of all time. Could have been written about half of the faculty in Fine Tower in just about any decade.
“A Beautiful Mind,” Sylvia Nassar
Frightening, observant and borderline poetic biography of the late John Nash, Nobel Prize winner and at the same time semi-derisively known as “The Ghost of Fine Hall.” I truly believe I was one of the first students to take his Game Theory course (which I dropped two weeks in, my bad, a decision I rue to this day).
“Mushroom: The Story of the A-Bomb Kid”, John Aristotle Phillips
This was still part urban myth part campus legend when I was an undergraduate. Phillips decided to design an atomic bomb for his senior thesis in the Princeton physics department, partly as a joke, partly because it was the only thing that seemed compelling and motivating enough. The book captures the spirit, the intent, the terror, and the high dynamic range love affair that is the senior thesis better than anything else. The science is real (frighteningly real). Buy it used for under a buck and read it.
“The Final Club,” Geoffrey Wolff
It’s the “Great Gatsby” with more overt anti-Semitism (face it: Gatsby is a tale of hidden identity veiled in anti-Semitism). “Final Club” takes place at Princeton and Reunions, and tells a Gatsby parallel story with a bit more brute force.
“Lost in the Meritocracy,” Walter Kirn
I loved this — while “Final Club” captured the elitism and subtle class distinctions that still haunt parts of Princeton, Kirn’s book brought back happy memories of the slightly goofy, artistic misfits I knew through WPRB, Colonial Club, the marching band and various musical groups (Funstigators, anyone?)
“The Smart Take From The Strong,” Pete Carril
The origin of the Princeton Offense and one of the few books that I treat as a management tome as well as a sports book. It is the first (and probably only) sports book read by former Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz (I gave it to him when he took over from Scott McNealy). Carril was my physical education teacher freshman year and shared some of his acerbic and unique views of the world from behind his newspaper and cigar smoke veil. Gems like “If you’re here or you’re not here you’re here so leave me alone” captured his spirit; his book is a reference guide to how to build a team out of unique, skilled but overlooked players and consistently win with someone else’s rules.
“Fermat’s Enigma,” Simon Singh
I adore Simon Singh’s history of science (and math) writing because he turns even arcane subject matter into a finely crafted story. Much of the story involves Andrew Wiles, a Princeton professor of mathematics who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, a problem that had been open for several hundred years.
“Incompleteness”, Rebecca Goldstein
Yes, Rebecca Goldstein gets two books, although this one is a biography of logician Kurt Godel. Roughly a third of it is set at the Institute for Advanced Study and while it has a requisite Einstein scene there’s not much other Princeton content or context. Consider this the real life source material for “The Mind-Body Problem.”
Books on the list to read/digest: Admission, Free Food For Millionaires, Reflections on Princeton, Who Got Einstein’s Office?