David Remnick ’81, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor of The New Yorker, will be speaking at theClass Day ceremonyfor the Class of 2013on Monday. The Daily Princetonian spoke with Remnick about his experience at the University, which he said was greatly enhanced after he took a year off between his sophomore and junior years. He spent the first half of the year interviewing American poets in New York and other parts of the country and spent the second half of the year working as a street musician in Paris. After he returned to campus for his junior year, Remnick, along with two friends, founded the Nassau Weekly.
The Daily Princetonian:Why did you choose Princeton?
David Remnick:I wish I could tell you because it was close to home, but it’s because it was by far, in a way, the best place I got in and everything else great about it—details known once I got there. Look, I have to be honest with you: I didn’t think I would get anything on the level of Princeton. I didn’t come from a high school where that happened very often.
DP:What high school did you go to?
DR:I went to a high school called Pascack Valley High School. It’s in North Jersey. You know if you go to certain kinds of high schools, you know better than I do, it is a very common thing, and people are talking about schools of that caliber all the time, and they are crushed if they don’t get in. That wasn’t the case.
DP:How did your experience at Princeton change from freshman year to senior year?
DR:Well, I mean you see, first you have to remember there were still dinosaurs on the earth. So, it’s a little bit of a long time ago for me to remember. It’s so long ago that when I look in my college yearbook, I recognize one face out of 15, 20, and that may be me, but I think maybe it's a normal state. But, what I remember is that I didn’t really hit my groove until I came back from a year off.
DP:When did you take a year off?
DR:In between sophomore and junior year. I did miserably in Russian.I think I am going to talk about that maybe brieflyon Monday.And when I mean miserably, I don’t mean a B-—I mean horrible. It kind of shook me up. I probably didn’t really know what I was doing academically, and I took a year off. The first half of the year, I lived in New York, and I had a small grant to do interviews with American poets in New York and all over the country, and the second half of the year, I was a street musician in Paris. I played in the metro. I was a guitar player; I sang. By the end of morning rush hour, … I had enough money to, you know, read books and go to the movies and run around Paris all day and night. It was kind of like a heavenly existence. I think I might have grown up a little bit, and I got back to college and kind of concentrated more and better. I think in those two years, I kind of was much better [at] taking advantage [of the] infinite possibilities of Princeton; not that I took advantage of even remotely a small percentage, but I was kind of more aware.
DP:How did you decide to take a year off?
DP:What do you mean?
DR:In other words, I just did it. I did it the way you jump off a diving board or get married, and as with getting married, that turned out to be a pretty terrific decision.
DP:When I spoke with you last, you talked a little bit about how you weren’t in an eating club and that you were opposed at the time to bicker? Why were you opposed to bicker, eating clubs, etc.?
DR:I was pretty political ... The image I had of myself, however direct or misguided, didn’t include bickering. And you know, I didn’t make a big thing of it—I didn’t care that much. I had a perfectly fine life living in Wilson College. In fact, I liked it a lot ... Remember, this was before the college system. It was really kind of homey. I was an RA eventually. I had a real life there. And I had a good time. And, you know, I went to parties here and there on Prospect but not much. I do remember seeing Tom Waits at Ivy Club … It would be the equivalent of seeing Kanye West … He was huge at the time, and he played at this tiny, tiny club, and it was was kind of a big deal.
DP:When you founded the Nass with a couple of people, that happened during your junior year? Am I correct?
DR:[Robert Faggen ’82 and Marc Fisher ’80] had this idea, and I thought, “Yeah, let’s do this”… First of all, I was going to be in Press Club, and you know we loved everything about the Princetonian at that time, and we were probably snobs about it — you know, as people always are, and so we wanted to try this other thing. My impression of it was quite different at the beginning than it is now. I think the emphasis is more on humor now and satire when we started my recollection of it, and I was pretty involved … It was much more about trying to imitate what we were reading in the magazines we liked at the time … A lot of the people involved became journalists … an unbelievable percentage [went] into it for real.
DP:What do you think of the Nass today?
DR:I think it's great that it exists, and when it’s funny, it’s really funny, but you have to remember when you are not living in the community, it’s a little bit like trying to understand jokes in Romanian. You are not living in it. You are not marinated in that language andset of references; you are reading pieces that you know want to be funny, and you have no idea if they are or not.
DP:If there is one thing you can change about your experience at the University, what would it be?
DR:I would’ve stayed longer. You have to understand — I am not saying that an undergraduate’s life isn’t complicated … But, when you are my age, and you think there was a time in your life that your entire job was to take four or five courses in things that you are interested in and be surrounded by people who are intelligent and full of possibility, you get to understand why people get nostalgic about what really amounts to a brief period of your life … You are at a time [in] your life when you are incredibly pliable — intellectually and socially and all kinds of things. I met people from walks of life that I would not have otherwise, and I think that Princeton is much more diverse and worldly—incredibly more so, thanks to Shirley Tilghman in large measure, than when I was there. Immensely more so.
DP:What would you say your biggest regret from your time at the University is?
DR:Same answer. Well, I have all sorts of intellectual regrets too if I look back and think about what I missed and what I could’ve done … Anthony Grafton was a young professor at the time — Imissed out on that. The list is quite endless. But that’s why I have a library. You can always keep reading. And an iPad and whatever else floats your boat.