Last Thursday night, I, and dozens of others, strayed from the customary march to Prospect and braved the February frost on our journey to Small World Coffee in celebration of the launch of this spring’s Nassau Literary Review. I had never been to a group reading before. Anticipating my attendance, I conceived an image of it that included turtlenecks and snapping applause—a dark, smoky room with a spotlit wooden stool. But when I entered the crowded café, past the prox-checking bouncer, it quickly became clear that the clichéd slam I imagined, and secretly desired, would not be in fact.
The event was scheduled for 10:30. I arrived ten minutes early and found the shop packed, the line for coffee already snaking long. The scramble for the Review’s coupons for free coffee felt like the weekend ritual for passes outside eating clubs. A few attendees leafed through copies of the Review’s new issue, which was small and yellow. The writers anxiously glanced at them, perhaps hoping to pick up a compliment or two before their recitations. The room felt loud and hot—the winter sweaters, the congestion of bodies, or, maybe, the nerves of the writers, tapping their fingers by the bar. My order went from hot to iced in the half hour it took to reach the cashier at the end of the bar, and, soon, caffeine replaced—refreshingly—the usual weekend buzz.
Small World did not feel different, though. An acoustic guitar lured the attendees to the tables arranged around a makeshift stage in the back. The Review’s staff quieted us down, and the first writer walked to the microphone, allotted five minutes to read.
The discolored Nassau Literary Review Facebook page was projected onto a screen behind the stage. A strange sort of disco ball hung above the mic danced, swarming tiny silver lights onto the writers’ faces. Chatter continued, and the baristas shouted “Mocha!” throughout, though none of this seemed to distract from the readings. I still managed to catch a glimpse of the kind of magic I was looking for.
For, suddenly, faces from lecture and precept and dining halls emerged and stood before me as poets and musicians. This was the performance of student writing by the authors themselves, free from the pressures of classes with goals and deadlines. I had never before seen this at Princeton. This audience was present of its own accord, not necessarily critical, or analytical. Even to the creative writing classes this stood in pointed contrast. The writers ended their poems and stories to applause and nothing more, and could do so proudly. I realized the luxury of such an atmosphere. If only we could sit more often in this calm space, lit by magenta Christmas lights, and, hushed, appreciate one another’s art.
There is a certain magic to the way people fall into the lullaby of their own words spoken aloud. It is a peculiar self-indulgence, a crescendo of strength in their voices over the reading, an increase in their command of the room. This magic extends to the audience. To hear someone read their own writing is to want to meet them in person for the chance to explore for yourself the complexities of their mind—and, also, an unusual way to forge a friendship.
As they expelled their young works of art from private nests irrevocably into the public air, as so many of them flew, something greater than the change in scenery hit me.
So much about Princeton is divided. Some of us love to love it and others love to hate it. One generalization I would venture to make is that, at the very least, Princeton students take pleasure in introspection. For whatever purpose, making sense of ourselves, it seems, is one of our favorite hobbies. I found myself with that very impulse after the readings.
What struck me most on Thursday night was the lack of an overarching label that would adequately describe the writers. Each piece is submitted and assessed individually. Their authors, that night, read them independently—without any affiliations. There had been no audition, no lengthy application, only the submission of a personal piece of art that was evaluated on its own merit and nothing more.
We often judge ourselves for the predominance of selectivity on campus, and our curious will to perpetuate it. But can we really blame ourselves? From that initial acceptance as a high school senior, it seems that Princeton students are hooked—so much so that we construct an endless structure of highly selective classifications to occupy us for the next four years.
From the moment we step onto campus in the fall of freshman year, we are pressured to define ourselves. We are challenged to rebuild our identity on a grand scale in extraordinarily talented company. Thus, we snap up the opportunities and pray for the best. We apply, we audition, and we bicker—all to distinguish ourselves. Perhaps, we hope, that distinction, these carefully engineered combinations of identities, will bring us toward answering the question of who we really are.
And then we flaunt it.
Who better to impress with yet another highly selective status than an audience of 5,000 other students who suffer from that same addiction? But these labels we assume are, of course, both unifying and isolating. It is easy here to blithely categorize the people you meet, to identify them by the defining characteristics of where they eat or in which theater they perform. And on the other side, there can be great comfort in the way people look at us, and for knowing that regardless, the people that matter most are on the inside with us. The champagne showers, the paths of shaving cream and silly string that mark these inclusions are ambiguous images—thrilling to the initiate, yet to the excluded often painful reminders.
High school’s strongest final distinction—college matriculation—is our strongest bond. But this unity is already ignored within our first few days on campus, when our attention is already directed to building our own identity, only further enhanced by the tight quarters in which we live and work and compete with everyone around us. I do not deny the cohesiveness of being a Princetonian that links generations of alumni with an unfaltering loyalty to Old Nassau. There is an unmistakable school pride that can be felt at victorious sporting events and homecoming and reunions, but inside the Orange Bubble we fragment and search for our own niches to crawl into.
Which is perfectly natural. I waste no time lamenting the existence of this complex, for competition is often what fuels performance, and the desire for a close-knit pseudo-family structure is, I am sure, a very ordinary aspect of human nature. But, listening to the various artists at the Review launch party on Thursday night, I was reminded of the profound relief that comes from disengaging Princeton’s elaborate social structure.
Afterward, I sat in my room, flipping though the Review’s booklet, I came across the centerfold. It was devoted to works by some of Princeton’s most celebrated literary graduates (and an even more celebrated drop-out).
In those pages, I read the poetry of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson, and glimpsed the Princeton of their day. Their eloquent musings on the campus they knew startled my conception of my—our present—Princeton.
It was a remarkable experience. For these poems were penned nearly a century ago, and yet I found myself thinking: that is what it’s like to walk around campus in the rain; you can see stars from Holder courtyard; or my roommate’s heart is also wrung by all the ancient beautiful things dead men have sung. I was overwhelmed with this sense of timelessness.
I could not think of a more attractive notion. There were students here writing variously about the same things we see now, and the same feelings and challenges and insecurities and budding life philosophies, and the same secret hopes we kindle in our own writing. This continuity—the timelessness of those century-old poems and their concerns—one of worry, as well as of wonder, renders trivial any anxiety we may harbor about the cultivation of our identity through exclusive and selective classifications. They are normal and surmountable and always have been. They are part of the complexity of maturation and of Princeton, specifically.
For those of you without the fortune of holding a copy of the spring edition of the Review, I will leave you with a few lines here, from Edmund Wilson’s The Sleeping College:
But, now the sounds of mirth and music cease,
Have we no ears for anything but mirth?
How should we hope for quietude or peace,
Where learning lives and human souls find birth?
Because I think he got it. That’s pretty much what we’re doing here.