Tony Grafton: On his days at Cambridge

Historians in the News

I'm at Cambridge, the one across the pond, spying on a different kind of academic life. It's not the first time I've had the chance to do this. Back in 1983-84, my family and I spent a year in Oxford, where I was a visiting fellow at Pembroke College.

Before this fall, though, I enjoyed many pleasant lunches in the Senior Common Room but otherwise kept my head down. I spent long weekdays working in the magnificent Bodleian Library and long weekends having fun with my family, heard little from Princeton (no email in those days) and learned even less about the Oxford system.

This year, times are a bit different. I'm working hard again, on what I hope will be described in much the same way as Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, legendarily said to the historian of the Roman Empire, "Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?" Every day I spend long hours in the Rare Book Room of the Cambridge University Library, reading books so obscure that even Firestone doesn't have them. But the Rare Book Room has wi-fi; and the splendid room where I work has DSL; so this year, the world and New Jersey are never very far away, as this column shows.

These days, though, I'm also more engaged in the local scene. My wife couldn't come with me, and my children are grown. Here alone, I spend much more time in college than I could a generation ago. I know more people, and I go to more events — from college lunches and dinners to seminars in the History of Science program. In many ways, the more of Cambridge I see, the better I like it.

Take the architecture. I don't have an office; I have rooms — a huge living room/study that looks out on the Fellows' Garden of my college, plus a tiny bedroom and kitchen. The college — the college of Milton and Darwin — has scaffolding up and work going on, as Princeton always seems to have. But most of its buildings are sweet, slightly crooked harmonies in sun-warmed stone, Tudor and Palladian — and there's more like them in every direction....

comments powered by Disqus