Several Years On

I have several posts a’workin’ reader, on such topics dear to this space as dance and books. But, I had to drop them to write a piece on How I Feel Now more than two years after starting this blog. Now that life has taken an alt-ac shape, and even something of a post-ac one.

I was inspired to write this by read posts of one of my favorite post-ac writers, Walking Ledges. He wrote a post a few days ago about how good it feels to sign a contract (for teaching) and know that the search is no more. (See it here.) That he no longer has to run around and get used to new things, virtually every year.

Yes. One of the most difficult parts of transitioning from graduate school is the search and the uncertainty.

My life includes a bit of teaching also. But as time transitioning out of graduate school has gone on, I’ve realized how nice the life of a freelance writer can be. Now, this is not really new news. If you count this blog, I’ve been writing for more than two years.

But a robust freelance career does not spring full blown from the head of Zeus. It’s taken me more than a year to fully transition to the point where I have good clients, interesting work and enough dinero to pay the bills.

I think what I want to write about, though, is the fact that I HAVE DONE IT. I’m successful! I’m happy! I’m been so focused on the push that it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve realized I slowly did climb the mountain. At least part of a mountain. I’m here where I can see the valley!

mountains and valleyI sometimes use the “climb the mountain not straight up but with switchbacks” analogy with students. That is, do something (in their case, study) steadily and methodically rather than trying to cram it in at the last minute, and eventually, as in the case of hiking with switch-backs, you’ll achieve a good altitude without muscle strain or broken bones.

Here’s what I really love about the life of a writer. I do what I want when I want. I have flexibility — as much flexibility as I used to have studying and teaching.

I used to spend research summers reading and writing in shorts and a t-shirt with the fan blowing. I loved it. When I realized how tight the academic job market really was, I had many thoughts. But chief among them was: I can’t stand to lose my research summers.

And I feel that I haven’t.

I think the whole short-and-t-shirt-with-fan is a beatific vision of being present in the mind, actually, and not having to be present in (to cite one alternative) a 9 to 5 office. It’s not that you can’t be present in the mind there, but present in the mind is (in my experience) rarely the focus. Present for a set of tasks and a social world that is sometimes Kabuki-esque. So my dream scenario, which I have now made the real scenario, combines present in the mind and comfortable in the body.

Can’t be beat, right?

It isn’t that there aren’t still things I want. I need some boost in income. I love working in archives, so I’ll be looking for a way to work that into the writing life. I’ll keep up this blog as a think space.

But life is good. Alt-ac’ers and post-ac’ers out there, light is at the end of the tunnel. Keep a’traveling on.

A Stepford Too Far

Hi, readers!  Today’s post is occasioned by something seen in the grocery store checkout line.  Namely, before and after pictures of Renée Zellweger.

The ones I saw were in Us Weekly, but similar juxtapositions have been all over the media, since, apparently, she was nearly unrecognizable at a fashion preview a month or so ago.


I find the change really chilling on several levels.

First, although her face clearly looks quite different than it did before, she is apparently maintaining that the differences are due solely to health-related diet and exercise changes.

I’ve always liked her persona in films as she (often) plays women with humor, sass, and common sense. Having plastic surgery to this degree is a dreadful negation of these things, and trying to erase the effects by a not very convincing story is even more so.

Second, if Zellweger had plastic surgery to hide the effects of age (she’s 45) that in itself is a sad commentary on ageism in contemporary society. Indeed, the New York Times devoted a recent “Room for Debate” to her recent plastic surgery as a example of prejudice against age. (It can be read here. “Room for Debate” is a recurring feature in which 5 to 6 commentators opine on a subject of contemporary interest.)

But an even sadder commentary is the fact that her original looks were completely sandblasted away. The plastic surgery is not obvious just because—or even primarily because—she suddenly looks younger; it’s obvious because she suddenly looks profoundly different.

Isn’t it possible that age was secondary, and a misguided attempt at looking some criterion of “better” the primary reason? Renée Zellweger has always been nice looking, but someone to whom the adjective “cute” or “attractive” would likely be applied, rather than “beautiful.”

It’s equally dreadful if a woman with perfectly acceptable looks comes to feel that they are not acceptable unless they adhere to an extremely narrow spectrum, and I’m almost more afraid of that than the aging motive. (I want also to say that we don’t know, obviously, unless she advances her reasons, but we can speculate about the culture pressures.)

The whole thing reminds me of Scott Westerfeld’s young adult novel Pretty, a science fiction tale in which every member of society, at 16, undergoes plastic surgery to be (as you might guess from the title!), pretty, beautiful, with perfectly symmetrical features. Westerfeld is a master at crafting his dystopian fiction to be only a few turns different than the contemporary world. After their surgery, for example, young people congregate in New Pretty Town. Parents are “middle pretties” and the generation before them are “old pretties.” One can easily imagine an actress thinking she is an “old pretty” who needs to be rejuvenated.

But, if I really get my meta on, I have to say it also reminds me of Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra. Let me quote the introduction to Baudrillard in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism: “simulacra seem to have referents (real phenomena they refer to), but they are merely pretend representations that mark the absence, not the existence, of the objects they purport to represent.” An example Baudrillard himself gives is Disneyland–indeed, it is the example most frequently given in the explication of his work. Frontierland and pirates in Disneyland are fantasies, not the real thing or even images of the real thing (as photographs, for example, would be). Unfortunately, Renée Zellweger’s face is now an example of simulcra as well.

Happy National Novel Writing Month!

Today, I’m going to celebrate the opening of a new month by writing about a cultural phenomenon that takes place within it: National Novel Writing Month, or, as the shortened form is known to cognoscenti, NaNoWrMo.

National Novel Writing Month is a challenge to write 50,000 words on a novel either by yourself, in concert with the Web site dedicated to it, or in tandem with writing buddies. Hundreds of people worldwide participate in it. While the statement on the Web site talks about 50,000 words, you can really set any goal for yourself. The point is to generate words every day for the entire month.  Chinese lantern pictures

And then pat yourself on the back at the end! And publish, revise, or whatever your heart desires.

I’m going to link this to elements in my graduate study, as I love to do. One of the first courses I took talked about the distinction between modern clock time and the festivalization of time that preceded modernity. Modernity is (among other things) about the institution of clock time: a standardized, regimented span of days, continually beginning and ending at designated times. Older eras were defined by feast days, festivals, and so forth. One of my professors argued that, in the contemporary world, widely celebrated holidays (think Thanksgiving, also coming up this month) were one of the few retentions of festival time (a continually replenishing, continually consumed table over the years, containing ritual elements).

Interestingly enough, it can be argued that the academic year also contains elements in common with festival time (very broadly defined, of course). Why? Well, rather than being a series of standardized days of roughly equal length, semesters have periods of waxing and waning, bookended with time that is celebrated as (first) a beginning (think welcomes and invocations) and (second) as ends (think holiday parties and breaks, which are unregimented time).

You can see the components of “festivalization” most clearly, I think, by comparing the waxing, waning, and punctuation of beginning and ends with corporate life. In the latter, one may have a vacation or holiday time off, but it is not celebrated as a beginning or end (certainly not in common), and while there may be busy periods or slow, it is not felt as a waxing in the way that the semester goes uphill, uphill, and then down (final grading!).

Well, I’m going to add NaNoWrMo to contemporary iterations of festival time. First, it has a specific time dedicated to it in which a huge community out there celebrates. It is kicked off with a celebration (there are write-ins that begin on October 31 and kick off as the chimes of midnight herald the month of November). There are numerous mini-celebrations within it (you can get badges and prizes for writing a certain number of words). There are communal write-ins throughout the month, including all-night events. (Talk about unregimented!)

And I think it is no accident that this custom happens during the bleakest month of the year. (I know many people would nominate December for this honor. Not me. Whereas the daylight in December increases after the 21st, the daylight in November only goes downhill.) It’s a shared ritual of harboring the light within, I think, and making sure that you are producing a kind of internal, creative warmth. I find it very encouraging to be part of such a team on these cold and dark mornings. So, all hail, NaNoWrMo!

Independent Day

In my pursuit of alt-ac-hood, I am a great fan of Versatile PhD, a web site devoted to forums and information for those transitioning out of the tenure track as a goal. The other day, someone posted a comment on one of its open forums to the effect that they were dissed when registering for a conference as an independent scholar.

The person querying had published a book, and had been invited to talk at the conference because of it. (She also works at a nonprofit, but that position apparently isn’t related to the research done for the book.) In other words, you would think she had a position inviting respect. Instead, she was told that her specific affiliation for the conference—independent scholar—was a euphemism. She wanted suggestions, from the Versatile PhD’ers, about how she could respond graciously.

Euphemism for what, it didn’t say. (Party-crasher? Suppliant? Poseur? Mystery Guest?) First of all, it isn’t a euphemism if you’ve actually published your research, it seems to me.

Second, as it happens, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently gave one of their awards to an independent scholar, Pamela O. Long. (The MacArthur awards are frequently referred to in the media as “genius” grants; awardees this year include a generous helping of academics and artists.) Ms. Long is 71 and has worked as a successful independent historian most of her life. Read more of her story here.

The whole issue of independent scholarship is a very vexed one for alt-ac’s and post-ac’s just because of this prejudice. It’s part of a larger set of practices that devalue any work that is not specifically linked to an institution of higher education and even within that, to work as a tenure track appointee within a department. That this is happening even as more and more people flee the tenure track or abandon it prior to obtaining it due to either the paucity of positions or the almost complete lack of free time for a fledgling academic (and as entire conferences are devoted to the alt-ac world, such as the recent one at Penn State) is increasingly frustrating. There are a scant number of openings in the current job lists, measured against multiple hundreds of applicants.

It seems to me that one solution is simply to be more inclusive about what constitutes thought and research. Some of this takes place in institutions; some of it takes place in conjunction with both institutions and private studies (past recipients of the MacArthur have included people like Anna Deavere Smith and Junot Diaz, who have university appointments but are better known for their artistic activities), and some takes place in private studies. The pudding—Pamela Long has a number of books to her credit—should be the proof.

Part of my own transition out of academia has included believing that perhaps there are a number of good models, not just one.

I’m happy to report that Pamela Long has written an informative and generous article on being an independent scholar that foregrounds the idea of the work being central and also provides an intriguing parallel with the lives of artists. To quote: “there are plenty of us out here, so it seems reasonable that we should claim some cultural space….it would be good for our profession to move a bit closer to this [by artists] focus on the work as opposed to the position.” I’ve only known about this essay for a couple weeks (since the MacArthur announcements were made), but I really think this should be required reading for alt-ac and post-ac folk. The whole thing can be found here.

Me ‘n’ Mysteries

Here’s the thing about being in transition from graduate school, for me: I just can’t get enough of mystery novels.

I’ve always liked mystery novels. But in the past, they formed a minor part of any reading pie I was in the middle of. I’ve always read pretty voraciously, but pre-graduate school I was a great aficionado of what bookstores call literary fiction and nonfiction. I was never a huge fan of genre fiction—not, at that point, mysteries or, then or now, any other genre form—fantasy, science fiction (and certainly not horror). From the early 2000s until about a year or so ago, once I began re-entry and then fully being in graduate school, I was seldom outside the realm of required-and-if-not-officially-required-then-you-need-to-know-about-this academic reading.

Then, a halcyon moment arrived: while still paying attention to the field and academic writing, I could once more make an opening for plain old reading. (I find both academic reading and plain old reading pleasurable, mind you. But few things are as wonderful as realizing that I could once again wander through the library stacks unimpeded and pick whatever I wanted to read.  For a similar moment in the postac blog Walking Ledges, see here.)  For me, it was a gigantic moment of feeling knit together: the old pleasures with the enlargement of the new.Book Review Ghost Hero

But what I want to read are mysteries, mysteries, and more mysteries. In the past year, I have finished catching up with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins (both old favorites) and gone on to find S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin-Bill Smith dually narrated series, Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan (and Lippman’s really good realist non-mystery novels as well), Laurie R. King in Britain and San Francisco, Susan Dunlap’s series in Berkeley, and Harry Dolan’s in Ann Arbor. (I’m fond of university towns and regionalism, and both if I can get them.) Plus I’ve recently discovered Tana French in Dublin and Rachel Howzell Hall in Los Angeles. (Some of these I’ve found through word of mouth, but others are discoveries made in National Public Radio’s cool “Crime in the City” series.) In fact, I’m feeling very sad that I’ve finished most of these, although the discoveries of French and Hall make me believe that great series in the genre come on a-comin’.  the likeness

Moreover, while I keep trying to pursue my old habits, they basically refuse to be captured. An example? My bedside table is occupied by Linda Gordon’s Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. In the old days, that would have represented an incredibly nice cup of tea: a fascinating person, an intriguing social world, and a wonderfully written biography. Yet when I picked it up recently, I literally thought “…but I know what happens and how this ends.” !!

So why is the burning desire to read at least an hour of mystery a day upon me now when it was pretty dormant before? Well, I think because the transition out of graduate school is a mystery. It’s an arc when what happens and how it ends isn’t fully known. I’m working part-time jobs until I arrive at the ultimate place I will be post-PhD (and still completing a PhD). So whatever the ultimate dénouement of the graduate school scene is for me…I don’t know it yet.

As a genre, mystery novels start with one of the journalistic w’s (what…happened), and the plot is the unfolding of every other journalistic w (why, when, where, and who. And we also usually get the journalistic h, how). Now, I have been holding off on this blog because…hey, mystery novels are kicked off by a bad thing (murder, theft, kidnapping, rape…something not good). So I was a bit hesitant to make the analogy: while yes, the job market post grad experience kind of sucks, for me, the experience of learning more in an environment dedicated to it was the opposite of murder, theft, and kidnapping. It felt like being restored to treasures I considered the most valuable. My inner self made also outer. It was a setting right, not a going wrong.

And then I realized two simple facts. First, the plot device that kicks off mysteries is a change in the given order. For them, the change is the wrong thing. But there is no law against the change being a right thing. (Hmmm…quite an idea for a novel itself!) It can be just a change, which graduate school certainly represented for me.

The second is…in strongly written series like these, one identifies with the investigator(s), not the person to whom X has happened. Indeed, writers on mysteries posit an ethical role for the PI: s/he is the one who sets right the rending of the social fabric. In some sense, being involved in the midst of the completion of PhD and what comes after is the investigator role of your own life.

So, all those mystery series out there…bring ‘em on!

The Case of Philosopher W, Part II: The Feminist Moment

Yesterday, I wrote about W, a philosophy PhD whose tenure-track offer was rescinded when she asked the hiring institution for a number of goodies.  Much of the commentary on W’s case has focused on the perils posed to women by negotiating. (See yesterday’s links to the philosophy graduate student site Philosophy Smoker, which contains run-downs on the media responses.) Many articles about it use Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to lean in and negotiate hard as the journalistic hook. (Women negotiate far less than men–7% versus nearly 60% .) I’m concerned that much of this commentary on W’s situation misses a few points. Let me say why.

W did negotiate. Her statement about why is a poignant testimony to how much feminism has worked in making young women highly aware of the need to proactively ask for more: “This is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it, and, for that matter, how I think it should work: you ask about a number of perks and maybe get some of them…I just thought there was no harm in asking.”

Yes, absolutely right. But the lack of reasons in the e-mail leads me to believe perhaps advice to women about negotiating has done, to date, only part of the job. She knew to ask. But she could have used advice on how to ask effectively. I think that educating young women about negotiating sometimes leaves out the “articulate the benefits and be attentive to the [institution’s, other person’s, whatever] needs” portion of the process because (the thinking goes) women need to put themselves first. To think about the other’s needs might lead to people-pleasing and scanting yourself, many women’s pitfalls.

There is a real risk of that, yes. But, real life negotiations aren’t simply expressions of healthy proactive interest either. After all, a request for a reduced teaching load might well have genuine negative repercussions for the department. (The department in question was tiny–a 4-person department split equally between female and male.) It’s an implicit request that another faculty member take the course , or that they ante up for an adjunct, or not have coverage. (I know adjuncts are poorly paid, readers. So I’m not trying to say it’s a big ante. But in a small college, it might make a difference.) I’m sympathetic to W’s situation, but I also can understand the reaction of college faculty and administration who looked at the e-mail and, if they were expecting a full-time colleague whose tenure track began next fall, saw that she was asking for nearly 50% time spent otherwise in the usual 6-year pre-tenure run.

It also wouldn’t have hurt to explicitly state up front that she was opening negotiations and knew they were counter positions that the institution could take, rather than simply sounding as if she was giving a laundry list that would have left them without an instructor for at least a year and a half. That could read to a committee thinking that they wouldn’t have coverage in the very area it’s trying to cover.

There is no harm in educating yourself in being smart in the negotiating process, as one of the better business commentaries points out. The list sans reasons makes me wonder if it doesn’t hide tentativeness, still; to give reasons is more bold than simply to ask. For a young post-student, especially, buttressing one’s own case with reasons might seem a bridge too far. So I think that the how of negotiation needs to be stressed, both as feminist point and student point.

I sometimes worry, too, that the emphasis on gender inequality as a causal explanation leads young women to worry needlessly, as if their gender is an implicit trap. It minimizes the very real progress that has been made in women being able—expected –to negotiate. The recursion of a gender explanation often assumes that women need basic advice they have in fact been receiving for decades now. (The advice to women to negotiate did not start with Sheryl Sandberg—she’s a bit new wine in an old bottle. I’m in midlife, so I have vivid memories of being told in the 1990s and even the 1980s to be assertive. Classes were given in this and everything.)

Perhaps what we need is parsing elements within gender more attentively. Sadly, recent studies show that women who negotiate are perceived much more negatively than men who do. Well, I’ll certainly keep the studies in mind, but because I also know a lot of women who negotiate successfully, so I wonder if the data couldn’t be broken down and parsed in different ways. Is there a difference in negotiation styles that women could learn from? Do men give more reasons, or more fully assume that they will be in an institution that wants their contribution and thus articulate that contribution as a matter of course? I’d love to hear other ideas on this.

In a final gesture of solidarity and education on this issue, I’ll give an example of a recent negotiation I did, and one in a very male world. (I owe my own negotiating stance to feminism; in fact, I could echo W that “this is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it.”) The old car I’d been driving around during graduate school died, and I had to buy another one. This was a big deal to me, as I’m in transition between graduate school, don’t have full time work, and don’t have a lot of money for a car. (I’m not trying to equate a tenure-track offer with a car; I realize it’s big apple and smaller orange, or bigger and smaller potatoes.) Still, a car is a major life purchase.

So, I researched used car prices, read a book (seriously) on buying a car which included a chapter on negotiating, and researched going prices for my old model. I managed to knock a substantial amount off the asking price of the new vehicle by and get more than initially offered for my old one by citing Kelly Blue Book values for similar cars. In each instance, frankly, the prices asked were already reasonable, I just managed to get a better deal. And the people involved did not fall over, or act as if there was anything unusual in my negotiation.

So we know to negotiate. We need our reasons and our evidence.

Should You Go To Graduate School? Well, Consider the Advantages

Good day, readers!

Today’s text is a recent interview in the New Yorker with the Canadian author Sheila Heti. It is excerpted from a recent book, Should I Go To Graduate School: 41 Answers to An Impossible Question.

Admirable book. These are weighty questions, and it’s nice to know there’s an anthology asking a bunch of writers, artists, and professors what they did.

But, see, the interview gave me pause. And here’s why.

Heti’s answer is, basically, no. She says she never considered graduate school, that her life as a writer is structured around the kind of interesting and intelligent questions that one finds in graduate school, and thus she felt no need of official advanced study.

Except. In mid-interview, in response to a question along the lines of “isn’t graduate school valuable for the socialization process” she suddenly says that she attended theater school and learned playwriting. Now, this was apparently prior to gaining an undergraduate degree. Still…isn’t studying playwriting exactly the kind of professionalized training in the arts and humanities that graduate school provides? (In those disciplines—and the book, interestingly, is only on those disciplines.)

So…isn’t it a bit disingenuous to say she never felt the need? It seems she did feel the need. And got it fulfilled, through a program–she just didn’t do it post undergrad. The interview is carefully structured so that a summary answer might read “no, you don’t need graduate school; your intellectual interchange can come through writing and socializing with writers and other artists.” But the data provided indicate a slightly different path.

Why do I care? I think my concerns tie into the kind of social capital issues I’ve discussed in earlier posts (of April 30 and April 22, 2014, to be specific). Heti portrays a world in which giving parties for artists leads to socialization, networks, and interesting conversations. Implicitly, she is talking about sharing a world with social and cultural, if not monetary, wealth. To quote: “I remember telling my grandmother about [artist and writer] isolation, and she said, ‘Have regular parties at your house.’ I think that’s how she and her mostly Jewish, communist, artist friends socialized back in Budapest.” But it sounds as if she wouldn’t have had the initial nucleus without the play-writing program. (Or her grandmother’s advice.)

In my own experience, graduate school not only provides a valuable structure and socialization, it simply provides many more forms of knowledge and contacts than one has without it. Moreover—and maybe even more importantly–it also provides a kind of badge of intellectual proficiency; an intangible proof of capacity and interest that is increasingly needed because, sadly, our society is not only increasingly separating into the economic haves and the economic have-nots…it is also increasingly separating into those with higher degrees and those without. (My calling this does not mean I approve of this development. It’s injurious to democracy, even. But do increasing degrees of separation exist? Oh, yes.)

I’m also concerned because I think telling such a narrative to young people might lead them to a naïve decision. Yes, graduate school is expensive and the financial investment may not pay off. But the forms of intellectual and social capital it provides, while intangible, are real.

The interviewer, Jessica Loudis, gives voice to, I think, a common feeling on the part of those considering graduate school: “people regard doctoral programs as a kind of insurance policy; a way of guaranteeing that they will be able to read and think about the things they care about, at least for a few years…. people project these sorts of fantasies onto grad school.” Crucially, this is said apologetically, as if the people having these fantasies are, maybe, wrong.

I don’t think they are, frankly. It is a kind of insurance policy, and it does function as a haven for thinking about what you care about. At least in my book. Now, the world is full of interesting things to cogitate about postgrad too. (That’s what Retaining the Meta is all about!) But don’t knock having an outward symbol as a marker of an inward reality.

No, No, New Yorker

Several weeks ago, a cartoon ran in the New Yorker that really set me aback. You can see it, the daily cartoon of April 1, here. It seems an especially significant symbol of increasingly blitheness that the rest of the world displays about the financial burdens of graduate school—and the increasing inequality between haves and have-nots in the US.

In it, a young woman is working behind the counter in a donut shop. It’s not an elegant one—it’s called “Metro Donut,” and ever so slightly down at the heels despite the two chairs and table in front for al fresco dining. She is turned in profile to a co-worker, telling him, “From Monday to Friday, I work in an office to pay rent. This is my student-debt job.”

Funn-ee, right?

Having no discretionary income to pay a debt isn’t really side-splitting in real life. Having to give up leisure time to pay debts isn’t amusing at all. And realizing that this story is considered amusing for the middle to upper middle class, educated audience of the New Yorker is maybe the ultimate non har-de-har.

Yet the cartoon obviates indignation at someone having to work weekends for repayments on crushing student debt. Why? I think we are expected to read in the kind of cultural and social capital that Pierre Bourdieu talks about. She has social and cultural capital, if not (much) of the economic kind. The audience might infer social and cultural capital by the facts supplied: that she has student debt means a certain level of education. That she is working in New York implies she is sophisticated and ambitious. We might be expected to read in a typical young-woman-come-to-the-big-city narrative: boyfriends, multiple roommates, and supportive parents somewhere. The latter have an extra room in case life gets really rocky.

Added to that scenario is the style of the drawing itself. Her hair is in a bun—symbol of competence—and she looks trim and together, if somewhat tired. We are expected to see her as typical of the Millennial generation, shouldering her Saturday afternoons (and maybe Sundays, too) at the donut kiosk (cart, truck, whatever). We are expected, I think, to see her as someone with foreknowledge that she’ll get out of student debt and high rent with pluck and hard work.

We are not expected to read in economic desperation.

Except. As a young woman, I put in time in New York City. (I’m a midlife PhD, remember, so this was a couple of decades ago.) At that time, I worked a fairly low wage job. And I spent 60% of my income on rent. I can still remember the anxiety of that era vividly. Once over half goes, and you haven’t bought groceries yet, the rest evaporates on necessities as well. Every book I have from the period has columns of figures in the back, as I tallied up whether I could afford a movie, a trip, or even chocolate chip cookies to allay the anxiety.

And, the rent I paid then would be considered dirt cheap today.

So in a way, I’m calling attention to this cartoon because it illustrates a significant creep in the actual financial strain over the years. I could pay my rent and live in Manhattan, if briefly. So could young women several decades before me. Now, that’s almost an impossible dream for the young liberal arts middle class; it’s one of the reasons that “Greenpoint” has cachet as a destination for the recently graduated hip. I didn’t have significant student debt. But in this cartoon, we see someone who can’t afford much beyond rent and loan repayment. My financial life was impaired my Manhattan. So, very likely, will hers be.

More importantly, though, what of upward strivers who don’t have the cultural or social capital that this young woman putatively does? Maybe that’s the worst of this economic era. I was the first in my family to go to college, aided by not much beyond general cultural expectation, relatively low tuition, and my own desire to read everything in the library.

Making a generational leap is increasingly difficult, and it’s increasingly onerous just because of student debt and high metropolitan rents. The young with college-educated parents walk across economic strain with social capital for a tightrope. The tightrope may break for people who don’t have that social capital. It either plunges them in the gulf or puts them in a place where social mobility, long a part of the American dream, is increasingly hard to put into reality.

Next:  more on upward mobility and young strivers in food service.

The Kindle, Part II: Why the Bloom Went Off the Rose

So readers, in Part I of this post, there I was, downloading books to my Kindle and loving it.

And then came a period in which most of my reading wasn’t available on e-books. (Although a lot of stuff is on Kindle, a lot also isn’t. So for a long time, my Kindle languished.)

Recently, I went back to it. To my shock…it no longer seemed like a Big Bright Book of Life. It seemed gray and nondescript. Even unworthy of holding so many multifaceted stories.

Why? I was anguished to think of something that had once given so much pleasure suddenly turning so…unappealing.

Well, several reasons, I think. And all of them very related to how we experience books, text, and book jackets. First, in the intervening period (about a year), I saw enough iPads to see what Genuinely Bright e-readers looked like. The bargain Kindle screen is a kind of grayish brown, rather than white.

Second, and more importantly, the text is undifferentiated in one container. Although each book downloads separately, of course, you as a (human) reader pick up just one object to access any number of books. In a new print book, by contrast, there is an anticipatory buzz in picking up a special object, neatly enclosed within covers designed specifically for it, that really doesn’t occur with a Kindle. I had just been in an extended period of reading books where every separate readable object I picked up was a separate narrative enclosed in covers specifically designed for it.

Covers, although secondary to the text, are highly important in giving a sense of the text—another level of anticipation. Covers exist as part of the download of an e-book, of course, but they are pictures on a screen rather than protective, encompassing borders between the book’s contents and the world.

Also, e-books often open to the first lines of text, bypassing the cover entirely. I have to specifically press buttons to go to the cover, rather than seeing it automatically, which makes the book less specifically identified.

And the third reason, the big reason, is related to the second. The all-together, undifferentiated container suddenly made all e-books within the Kindle look generic. I felt like I was engaged in some reading equivalent of buying generic paper towels at the Acme: reduced to an ugly package, a bare bones contract, and ultimately, contents that weren’t…quite…as…good.

And part of that was fed by the nature of the books I’ve been reading in the transition period between graduate school and new position. I have dealt with this period by reading an incredible amount of mystery novels. (I think the sense that there are clues and ultimately a satisfying ending comports well with the search for a job, actually—all tantalizing clues until the final piece of the puzzle—an offer—occurs.)

Mysteries are a kind of generic fiction, of course. A bad deed, investigators dedicated to seeing it punished, and a number of clues and strong plot (and good characterization, if you’re lucky). In that, they are like paper towels; you can buy very good ones or a bare minimum to meet the genre requirements. In book form, mysteries feel solid and have an exciting a new one quality, to me. In a Kindle, less so.

So I had a period of feeling trapped in the land of the generic paper towel, book division.

For more on book covers and their role in the e-book reading experience, see Part III, coming soon!

The Kindle, Part I: Love Song

Although this is an alt-ac blog, my intent is not only to discuss academia but to make public its concerns: to share stuff that I’m interested in and that people might like to read. A piece of this will be paying close attention to scenes of reading and writing and their uses in our life. The field I’m in—English—is highly invested in these scenes, and mediating their uses in the academy and the life beyond is one of the things I really love to do. (Indeed, at one point our department chair told me I should develop a brand—like a marketing brand—for myself, and what came to mind was: I’m The Incredible Reading Woman. This is a parenthetical digression, but since this is an alt-ac blog, alt-acs and postacs who have received similar advice might want to know that I found good info at the grad site maintained at Tufts: Ok, end of helpful digression.)

Today’s post is on a particular e-book, the Kindle, and my love for it. Then I’ll move to the next installment, and describe how the bloom came to be off the rose.

Three years ago, I bought a Kindle. The purchase was an experiment, designed to see if I liked reading books electronically. My plan was: download a ton of books, read them, and take copious notes. This would eliminate the need for typing up the notes, I felt, because all would be electronic.

From the first, I simply loved my Kindle as a reading device. Never mind note-taking (which, as it turns out, is as time-consuming as typing notes outright).

I loved my Kindle with a love that was almost embarrassing. See, I’ve always thought of books as a kind of Big Bright Book of Light. Knowledge, companionship, fun, pleasure. A portal to enchanted realms. Well, the Kindle literalized the big-bright-book-of-light-ness.

A lot of the conversations around History of the Book ( and digital humanities in our field center around the differences and continuities between old and new media. Much popular media makes these out to be entirely different—as if the Web made Everything New. But the conversation is much more interesting. It can be argued, for example, that the current scene displays a lot of continuities with earlier periods rather than abrupt difference. Think, for example, of how e-mail more resembles letter-writing in the 18th and 19th centuries than voice/telephone methods. We are back to frequently written missives.

Well, here’s another continuity: reading with Kindle reminded me of the kind of immanent spirituality early Protestant England saw in everyone reading their own bible. As I learned it, stained glass was replaced with clear glass, and windows became larger, because incoming light filtered through plain glass facilitated reading.

I saw e-books as combining reading with the same ease of movement one has in one’s mind. Suddenly, books were unencumbered by the need to carry them and pay attention to their relative heaviness. This was a considerable boon to me. First, I checked a helluva lot of books out of the library. And academic books—heck, any books in the aggregate–are often very heavy. Two, when I took vacations I was in the habit of packing and sending books or carrying a very heavy load as I traveled. The Kindle simply took care of that: wealth and ease all in one.

Part II soon!