President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 has selected “This America: The Case for the Nation,” as the Pre-read for the Class of 2024, according to a press release from the University Office of Communications. Jill Lepore, a professor of American History at Harvard University, published the book in 2019.
Established in 2013, the Pre-read is an annual University tradition. This summer, members of the class of 2024 will receive a copy of “This America” in preparation for discussions in the fall. In the past, such conversations have included an all-class gathering with the Pre-read author, optional small gatherings with Eisgruber across the residential colleges, and guided sessions within zee groups.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Lepore said that the book “functions in some ways as a very, very short history of the idea of the United States as a nation-state.” The 160-page work is a follow-up to Lepore’s considerably more lengthy examination of American history, “These Truths.”
According to Lepore, the book addresses the notion that “in American history, as is the case in many nations, there is an ongoing battle between a liberal vision of the nation and an illiberal vision of the nation and that each generation wrestles with that.”
The press release noted that, in selecting “This America,” Eisgruber is “asking Princeton’s incoming class to explore the concept of the nation, American civil ideas, and historical truth-seeking.”
In a foreword to the book that was specifically created for the Pre-read, Eisgruber further ponders, “How can Americans, and the people of other nations, see themselves as united in a shared quest for the common good despite differences and disagreements that might pull them apart?”
Rather than provide concrete answers to the aforementioned questions and the premise of the writing, Lepore noted that her work “offers observations about change over time and asks the reader to engage in the inquiry of thinking through the consequences of that history”
“Does the book have a conclusion? Well, yeah. But does it have a prescription? Absolutely not,” she added. “That’s what will be fun and why I’m looking forward to … hav[ing] a conversation with the people who really get to decide these things, which are the young people.”
Former Mathey College RCA Samuel Li ’20 said he believes that beyond the text of the work itself, the Pre-read holds value in community building and allows incoming first-years to adjust to life at the University.
“The Pre-read is valuable,” Li said. “I think the first value in my view is that it brings students together around an intellectual topic. Freshmen… often don’t know anyone, they’re so excited, and this is one thing, the one small book that they should read over the summer, that will give them something to talk about with other students.”
Li also noted that the book is a special opportunity for engagement outside of the classroom. “It’s the one time the RCA, PAA [peer academic advisor], RGS [resident graduate student], and zees have an academic discussion,” he explained.
Noting that “The Clash of the Colleges” is conventionally the final instance in which a first-year class gathers before beginning graduation-based traditions, Li noted, “this is an important part of orientation, of the core of Princeton.”
Yet such importance extends beyond one’s first days at the University. “This is an extraordinarily challenging historical moment,” Lepore said, “where all kinds of capacity and courage and integrity and doggedness and resourcefulness and creativity is called for and it’s useful to think about that as a historical matter.”
Reflecting on the Pre-read and her message to the Class of 2024, Lepore considered the value of sharing one’s thoughts.
“In a time of profound alienation and separation, reading and talking with other people about what you’re reading is an extraordinary intimacy that is worth seeking out in every possible opportunity,” she said.