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Of all the prefixes I never expected to accompany my name, “doctor” was firmly ensconced on the list. So it was with a combination of elation and gratitude that I received the news this past February that my alma mater, La Salle University in Philadelphia, would grace me with an honorary doctorate during the university’s May 2024 commencement.

Along with the cap and gown and diploma, I was presented the great privilege of delivering a commencement address before the graduating seniors, faculty members and families exactly 53 years after I sat in those same seats.

Drawing on a lifetime in book publishing, I decided to talk to the graduates about something we publishers know as well as we know jacket copy, foreign rights and blown production schedules, and that we know better than most other professionals. We know about—and I spoke about—lunch.

Yes, lunch. To be clear, I expressly didn’t talk about eat-at-your-computer, grab-n-go, a hot dog, a Pop Tart or yogurt in your office. Rather, I highlighted lunch with a capital “L” in a sit-down restaurant where the graduating seniors, in their coming careers, would find themselves dining periodically with colleagues, clients, competitors and friends.

To the class of 2024, my message was simple: For all the lofty goals the graduates aspired to, they would achieve those goals more enjoyably and even more successfully if they found the time to meet often for lunch, and to reap its underappreciated social benefits.

The graduates will discover that navigating adult life is frustrating business. Amid the contending clutter of phones, stop-and-go traffic, remote work, appointment juggling, social media fixation, and various pandemic and algorithm-induced conditions, and against the divisions that strain our politics and culture, people need the enjoyment of sustained social engagement. Hidden in plain sight on the weekday calendar sits a singular source of such rejuvenation: the midday meal, lunch.

So, with a lifetime of publishing repasts under my belt, I proceeded to talk about the value of lunch. And with my new honorary doctorate firmly in hand, I did so in grand scientific style. Referencing Albert Einstein and his unified field theory of relativity, I called mine “Dougherty’s unified field theory of lunch.” I then set forth my theory of lunch, followed by a few stories intended to help graduates make the most of it in their professional lives—stories that also might resonate with people working in higher education.

Conversation Insurance

My theory addresses a critical question: Why, in the middle of the otherwise overstuffed professional day, do serious people drop everything to race to a restaurant to meet others for a mushroom omelet? Why does lunch exist at all, as a social practice?

Lunch, to my mind, exists as a platform for reviving the imagination, social as well as intellectual. By ensuring the opportunity for conversation, it enables people to enjoy each other personally, to exchange ideas spontaneously and to turn work briefly into play, the true province of creativity.

How does lunch facilitate these goals?

  • It’s familiar. Everybody knows what lunch is, where to find it, and when, and that it ends with a return to work. And unlike breakfast or dinner, most everybody is available for it. We know what it looks like. It’s a party waiting to happen.
  • It is tangible. Anyone who has lunched on a Power Bar over Zoom in a bedroom doubling as a home office understands just how much more enjoyable lunch is with real people. This tangibility matters greatly because it draws us out of our pandemic-induced digital igloos.
  • <It is collegial. It ensures a modicum of interpersonal respect by mandating timely arrival, appropriate dress, good manners, and a certain decorum. Just try arriving at a proper lunch a half-hour late in flip-flops. These rules raise lunch from a mere meal to an event.
  • Perhaps most important, it takes time. A real lunch lasts at least an hour. In publishing, an hour is just warming up. Point is, long lunches make rich conversation possible, stimulating insights free of the formality of the office. Nobody’s keeping score. The ideas flow easily.

So, as the game theorists would say, lunch exists as an “enforcement mechanism” for these important functions to take place. Lunch sandwiches fun into the workday culture, and makes such social encounters easy and repeatable. It’s there every day—same time, same station.

But what’s in it for us, personally?

Of Campus and Cuisine

Lunch nourishes our spirits and our stomachs, alike. Beyond my message to the graduates, some of whom may themselves pursue careers in higher education, I make five such references from my history among academics, on campus and off.

  • Lunch helped me to define my academic self. When, in 1992, I left New York, and a career in commercial publishing, to join Princeton University Press as its economics editor, I quickly discovered that I had to adapt to the university culture, one different and distinct from business. Relying on the experience I had gained in Midtown Manhattan, the lunchtime capital of the world, I quickly realized that my main adaptational tool was to invite my new colleagues, faculty members and administrators alike, to lunch.

If a faculty member on our editorial board had doubts about the value of my editorial program, as happened several times, I would take that professor to lunch. If a university financial executive was mystified by the byzantine economics of publishing, I would schedule a lunch. If I ran afoul of a colleague either at the press or in the university (as happened, but very rarely), the best way to clear the air was over lunch.

Obviously, I wasn’t the first person in collegetown history to arrange a lunch, but I saw a certain strategic value in it, and I did it right: I was always quick to extend invitations, I chose pleasant venues, and I made the reservations. So my Manhattan publishing past prepared the path of my near 30-year Princeton future. By the same token, a little taste of New York (or London) publishing style would go a long way in helping young faculty members or administrators appreciate the value of arranging lunch as a way of learning the ropes and succeeding in academic culture.

  • Lunch helped me to appreciate differences. Some years ago, while I was in Beijing representing Princeton University Press, I participated in a conference with colleagues from the Chinese university presses. As awkward as the formal business encounters were, it was at lunch, around a big table full of local dishes, that we began to toast each other and appreciate each other as fellow publishers.

One does not have to travel to China to feel separation from others. Literary scholar Paula Marantz Cohen, in her 2023 book Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Value of Conversation (which I had the privilege to edit), observes that, “Many people nowadays engage only with those whose views and life experiences mirror their own.”

Lunch looms as the simple yet subtle go-to resource for breaking these barriers, and thereby relaxing (if not eliminating) the contentious effects they have built into the culture. Consider what benefits might emerge if more people on campuses—administrators and faculty members alike—reached out and invited others to lunch, say, from different countries, of different ages, with different backgrounds and worldviews.

  • Lunch made me more productive. Previously, I noted that lunch buys us an hour or so of time to talk. It taught me the “40-minute rule.” That is, after many years of taking my authors to lunch, it dawned on me that something special happens about 40 minutes into the meal.

It is then, after the pleasantries and small talk and gossip are exhausted, that the table’s imagination awakens, often enabling interesting insights and discoveries. Countless of my publishing projects were hatched over long lunches, including the book I’m proudest of publishing, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller’s classic, Irrational Exuberance.

In a dynamic multidisciplinary scholarly environment such as that which defines higher education today, the excitement of intellectual exchange across scholarly specialties could hardly be better catalyzed than through long talks, unimpeded by missteps or mistakes. So, I encourage those of you who work in academe to make a stand for useful knowledge, and take a nuclear chemist or forensic accountant or anyone else from a highly divergent discipline to lunch.

  • Lunch can just be fun, and we all need that. Years ago, I had lunch with one of my heroes, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (not incidentally, also a great social scientist). When I suggested to him that he write a book about the architectural renaissance of Pennsylvania Avenue which he had helped to bring about, he liked the idea and we met for lunch at a restaurant on Capitol Hill. As we dined on club sandwiches at the bar, the senator regaled me with stories. Sadly, he died before completing the book, but it was a highly memorable and fun lunch for me.

Exercising a little imagination in choosing lunch guests, or favorite luncheon venues, can make the workday week more edifying and enjoyable. Returning to my hometown of Philadelphia last year to work at the American Philosophical Society Press, where I’m currently employed, has given me the chance to renew old academic connections throughout the city and make new ones. My friends can now trace my footsteps from my office in Benjamin Franklin’s Philosophical Hall on Fifth Street to Frieda’s Cafe at Third and Walnut Street. While I understand you may not think you have the time for what seems like a self-indulgent break, I highly recommend you take it for both your current and long-term well-being.

  • Last, but not least, speaking of enrichment, lunch can be appetizing. One of the great benefits of having been a traveling academic editor has been sampling the local cuisine during lunches with authors. I could write the culinary history of my career around meals savored in celebrated luncheon spots across America’s campuses. From venerable local establishments (The Tombs at Georgetown, The Virginian at University of Virginia) to popular taverns (The West End Cafe at Columbia, the New Deck at the University of Pennsylvania) to faculty haunts (the University of Chicago’s Quad Club in Hyde Park, Mory’s at Yale in New Haven) to fine dining (Chez Panisse in Berkeley; Harvest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close to Harvard), academia famously travels on its stomach.

The connection between campus and cuisine is hardly coincidental nor is it inconsequential. In fact, it is a time-honored tradition, and one worth rediscovering as a treasured resource in favor of a plastic bag of trail mix consumed alone in one’s office.

Town and Gown

I finished my talk to the La Salle graduates by telling them that I hoped that we would soon give up our infatuation with computer screens and return to the sidewalks and street corners of Philadelphia as citizens, neighbors, and friends to revive personal connection, breaking down isolation and rebuilding “the city invincible,” in Walt Whitman’s famous phrase.

What applies to town, goes for gown as well, if not more so. Umberto Eco once lamented the decline of the local bar in university towns because it eroded the chance for students to meet to discuss—and improve—their scholarly work. In recent generations, the proliferation of faculty groupings—The Center for This, The Institute for That, the Program in Something Else—and the hydra-like growth of divisions and units among administrators, have cumulatively diluted community in higher education, rendering campus a mere cluster of GPS locations, rather than a place. The ubiquity of travel and the technology of remote work have only made matters worse.

For all the admirable efforts on the part of university officials to devise programs and other schemes for restoring a sense of community, Dougherty’s Unified Field Theory would predict that the shortest distance toward a more reconciled and spirited campus might be the closest luncheonette. Bon appetit!

Peter J. Dougherty, who retired from Princeton University Press in 2022, having directed it from 2005 through 2017, is currently director of the American Philosophical Society Press.

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