From a professor’s point of view, the summer looks very different. Good American colleges and universities hire and promote professors who, they hope, will advance knowledge. They look for scientists and scholars who will find new answers, and they try to find a few who will ask new questions. And there’s good reason for this. At places like Princeton, we professors introduce undergraduates to our fields; work with seniors as they do original research, drilling deeper into their subjects than anyone else in the world has done before them; and supervise the graduate students who will make our books obsolete. We couldn’t do any of this if we weren’t doing research ourselves. Only summer makes that possible since it provides time not punctuated by lectures, seminars, department meetings, office hours, appointments with seniors and graduate students and lectures by old friends from other schools.
I spent this last summer — like most of my past ones — doing research in Europe. In the old days, that could be tricky. Back in 1976, I told a suspicious border official at Heathrow that I was an assistant professor at Princeton. “Yes,” he replied, clearly thinking that anyone who said something so implausible must be planning to stay in England and become a charge on the state: “Show me your money.” Nowadays, my gray hair seems to make my calling more believable, and they always seem to let me in without fussing.
What does Europe offer that New Jersey doesn’t? Manuscripts and books, thousands of them, not yet digitized. They’re heaped up in famous libraries like the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and in less famous ones like the Forschungsbibliothek in Gotha, a quiet — OK, a frighteningly silent — town in the former East Germany, mainly known for training tax collectors. Open a folder or turn a page, and suddenly you’re in direct contact with someone who lived and thought four hundred years ago.
Second, new experiences. This summer a colleague and I were invited to organize a research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He’s a classicist, I’m a historian and both of us study, among other things, what happened to Greek and Latin texts as they were copied, interpreted, taught and edited over the centuries. It’s a rich field, part of the core history of Western culture. The MPI gave us the chance to make it richer by inviting scholars who work on non-Western texts to compare the ways in which their classic texts have been studied across the barriers of time, space and language.
The Institute itself is a little alembic for producing white-hot new scholarship. Two floors of offices and seminar rooms sit over a quadrangular basement library with 65,000 books and vast microform and digital resources, open 24 hours a day. What they don’t have, they’ll borrow for you. And they have ways of making you work. The Institute is in Dahlem, which makes Princeton look like the Meatpacking District: no distractions. The management provides a comfortable office with an iMac and a Herman Miller chair and a tiny apartment furnished with Ikea’s Sleep No More series of beds and chairs, crafted from solid stone. After one night, the desk looks great.
It all worked better than my friend and I had hoped. Our colleagues told fascinating scholarly detective stories. We watched as an 18th-century Chinese scholar established a text, character by character; learned why Coptic Christians preferred a Jewish translation of the Old Testament into Arabic to a Christian one; and were astonished as a brilliant, perverse and unidentified medieval scribe emended Suetonius’ “Lives” in more places than any modern classicist (thanks, Professor Kaster!). Our collective book will raise more questions than it offers answers. And I came back to New Jersey with an address book stuffed with wonderful contacts, a lot of new knowledge to offer my students, a pocketful of new projects for them (and me) to pursue and a lot of energy.
It’s not everybody’s idea of a fun summer, I reflected more than once, as I staggered the few meters from my office to my concrete bed after midnight or crept the other way in the early morning. But it worked for me. And that’s why I keep being distracted by thoughts about which libraries I need to visit in the summer of 2013 ...
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at email@example.com.