The Institute for Advanced Study, the research center in Princeton, New Jersey, was founded 60 years ago around the figure of Albert Einstein. When I was named member (1989-1990) the inestimable William Safire said to me, “Oh, Jack! That’s where they send the geniuses!”

So strong is the presence of Einstein that people hereabouts readily forget you just can’t institutionalize genius. Whatever their spiritual gifts, Franciscans, unlike St. Francis of Assisi, can’t talk to birds—and when they try, the birds don’t listen. So here, too, whatever their formidable pretentions and however great some of their predecessors, not many Institute professors are geniuses. But they all know how to act the part.

Judging from the two schools of IAS I know well, the School of Historical Studies and the School of Social Sciences, the staff is made up of people who range from above average but not mainstream (social sciences) to the quite good but not all that brilliant (historical studies).

All of them are presentable figures in their field. None could be regarded as an intellectual leader in his subject—no R.R. Palmer, no George Kennan, no Felix Gilbert (the Institute’s class-acts now retired), no counterpart to a William MacNeil or a Eugene Genovese for instance—nobody brilliant, controversial, and agenda-setting.

But then, how much genius is there in any generation? And why must there always be a genius in every subfield of (for instance) history, for which an opening exists? And therein lies the lesson. Why think that the six fields of history IAS covers will have an Einstein ready for you the day that you need one? Chances are, you’ll just get somebody competitive in the field as it is practiced that day, not the one who is shaping the field as it will be studied for a hundred years.

Why not institutionalize genius? Because it happens when and where it happens, this field today, another field twenty years from now. Genius is God’s joke on the rest of us. IAS today is what happens when you don’t believe in Grace: you believe, instead, in your own press notices. Fields of study are what they are, until some lonely, self-absorbed, stubborn narcissist persists and, by accident or sheer weight of intellect, wins the day and changes the world.

Take, for instance, geology—a field for students who were lazy jocks and dumb time-servers until, around thirty years ago, some wild genius discovered plate tectonics and made the theory stick. Now, if you’re running “the place where they send the geniuses,” as IAS thinks of itself, your job is to know that geology has a genius. So you go and try to bring that genius to IAS—but then you do not go on in geology, unless there is another revolutionary figure to appoint.

When the great moment of geology has run its course, with your open chair in geology, you have to identify not the next-best, or a distinguished, or the merely presentable (house-broken) geologist to succeed. You should try to learn what other field, that day, is exploding, and build there.

The alternative is to have a routine school of geology (or math, or historical studies), and then you’re competing not with the ages but merely with other departments at other universities. So you get not geniuses—there may not be any to fill your slot in math or geology or history that day—but just another department. (Even if there are geniuses around, you may not want them because they don’t bathe, and Princeton is a place where everybody is rich and smells good. Culture is, well, you know, cultured.)

And the geniuses you do get—not being self-absorbed men, who care mostly for what they’re studying—are going to be awfully pleased with themselves, treading in the footsteps of the likes of Einstein, Von Neumann, and Oppenheimer. But Einstein didn’t know he was Einstein. He was too busy thinking about whatever Einsteins think about. For the geniuses don’t notice. Only the others do. Here, in general, they do. They really do: Who Gets Einstein’s Office is the tide of a book about the Institute.

If you want to see the long-term results of believing your own press notices, look at the library of IAS, which must be the most eccentric—the most pointless—public collection of books in the world. The Institute orders what the permanent staff wants, and since up the road there is Princeton University’s library, with upwards of seven or eight million volumes, IAS really doesn’t have to form a policy.

Consequently the acquisitions policy is pure caprice. I checked the IAS collection under the Library of Congress letters BM, which stand for Judaism, DS, Jewish history, and PJ, Hebrew and Aramaic. What shocked me is not what they don’t have, since I expected little, but what they do have, which is, to put it charitably, mostly junk. I told the director that no small town synagogue library in Western Pennsylvania would want half the ephemera that IAS shelves under Judaism. My advice was, throw it out and start over. Fat chance.

What got me curious about the library was the rather odd selection of magazines for general reading in the Common Room. Being a denizen of the intellectual right, I went in search of my three favorite magazines, National Review, Commentary, and Chronicles. I even looked for some of their British counterparts. No such luck. The Common Room displays none of them (they do have the Economist), and the library periodicals room, only Commentary. I wrote to the librarian and offered to contribute subscriptions to all three for the Common Room.

He never answered. I didn’t expect him to.

But then, either (a) I’m the genius, and you don’t try to respond to a genius, you just smile benignly and do whatever he wants; or (b) he’s the genius, and then he doesn’t have to respond to anybody anyhow.

I don’t think I am, and I don’t think he is. But if I had to bet, I’d guess he would check box “b.”

But, as Safire asked me, isn’t this where they send the geniuses?

Sometimes. Sometimes not.