I write on the happy occasion of the eightieth birthday of one of the Press’s most prolific authors and one of our most important advisers and supporters. Richard W. Bulliet, Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at Columbia, was on the Press’s Board of Trustees for many years and served (for more years than anyone else I can remember) as a devoted member of our faculty publication committee. This group meets monthly and decides on final approval for every book we want to publish. It is a perfect assignment for someone like Dick, who is interested in just about everything. During his tenure he displayed an eager engagement in all subjects and played a lively part in discussions on books in disciplines as far afield from his own as literary criticism, philosophy, and earth science. It was always a treat to attend the meetings and hear his thoughts on the books we were presenting that month.
The primary (or maybe I should say sole) perk of serving on this committee is that members can receive a free copy of any book published by the Press just for the asking. Most members ask for books whose subjects rest squarely in their own field. Dick asked for books on a huge variety of topics, and it was always a pleasure to see what he’d chosen.
Dick’s wide-ranging interests resulted in The Columbia History of the Twentieth Century, which may have derived from the final portion of his two-part, year-long History of the World course at Columbia. It’s hardly surprising that he also served as one of our advisers on the last print edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia.
Closer to his own discipline, he was and continues to be a strong promoter of his own field, and as an adviser to the Press, he helped us build our list in Middle East history and religion. He also steadfastly supported his former students and gave them advice about their own books, urging us to consider them when appropriate. His support of emerging scholars was most recently reflected in his generous donation to our fledgling First Book Fund, created to help publish the work of new scholars.
By my count, Dick wrote eleven works of nonfiction (not including several textbooks and coauthored books), six of them published by us. He also wrote at least five novels, the first having the memorable title of Kicked to Death by a Camel; the last was the equally memorable The One-Donkey Solution. His scholarly work focused on, among other topics, the history of technology, animal domestication, and the Middle East, all of which he often drew upon in his books. His innovative works published by us include The Camel and the Wheel; Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers; and Cotton, Climate, and Camels, all in that vein.
As a fellow Illinoisian, who grew up with a camel saddle on a stool in the living room upon which I often sat as a kid, I felt an immediate affinity for Dick’s scholarly interest in this invention. I have no idea how or why we acquired it, but my father was also very interested in the history of technology and may have picked it up during a business trip to the Middle East. I never really thought about that camel saddle until I read Dick’s assessment of the significant military advantage early Muslim armies gained by improving their saddle design. Bulliet’s work transforms how we understand the importance of even the most mundane objects in larger historical contexts and movements.
So I am grateful to Dick for his inspiration, his contributions to scholarship, and his myriad contributions to the Press—we would not be the same without him! We wish him many happy returns of the day.