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One Tome at a Time

Imagine a library of the 500 books that mean the most to you.

Charles Miller ’59 is creating just such a place, selecting his most cherished books and shipping them from Virginia to a nephew in Arcola, Ill., who will turn a room of his home into a noncirculating library. The “Arcola Collection” will be Miller’s intellectual legacy.

He’s drawing from a remarkable wealth of source material that reflects the scope of his own journey—after Swarthmore, Miller studied at Germany’s University of Freiburg on a Fulbright grant. He earned a Ph.D. in government at Harvard and taught at Clark College in Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta University) and Princeton University before landing at Lake Forest College in Illinois, where he spent the majority of his career teaching politics and American studies.

His own books in the collection include The Supreme Court and the Uses of History (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969), Jefferson and Nature: An Interpretation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), and Ship of State: The Nautical Metaphors of Thomas Jefferson, with Numerous Examples by Other Writers from Classical Antiquity to the Present (University Press of America, 2003). 

The Arcola Collection contains many items with connections to Miller’s Swarthmore years, including books by professors J. Roland Pennock ’27 and Franz Mautner. Miller describes Pennock’s seminars in political theory and public law and jurisprudence as “the most influential college courses in my life” and has archived his Democratic Political Theory (Princeton University Press, 1979) for Arcola. From Professor Mautner—who “taught with a gentle humor and a twinkle in his eye”—he has selected the writings of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a physicist and aphorist who penned such pithy phrases as “It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody’s beard.”

The collection also includes works by Swarthmore friends and classmates, among them Peter Schickele ’57, H’80’s The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach (Random House, 1976); David Porter ’58’s books and articles on texts from classical antiquity, author Willa Cather, and pianist Eduard Steuermann; The Roman Market Economy (Princeton University Press, 2013) by Miller’s freshman- and senior-year roommate, Peter Temin ’59, an economic historian; and Maurice Eldridge ’61’s baccalaureate address from 2009, which speaks to racial issues at the College. 

His lifelong love of music is also apparent in his choices. At Swarthmore, Miller wrote the background score for three plays, among them Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and was a member of the Madrigal Singers. He has archived several folksong books by Ruth Crawford Seeger, a noted composer, stepmother of folk singer Pete Seeger, and Miller’s own childhood piano teacher. 

Miller, who has prepared notes for about 200 titles so far, does not miss his favorite books after he mails them. 

“I’m creating a small library. How many people get to do that?” he asks. “More importantly, I get to be with all these books for the rest of my life.”