The Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. Photograph by Diliff.
From The Smart Set:
Traditionally, writing and teaching at the university level have been the career paths of choice for English majors. Nice work if you can get it. I never could, which is why I’ve spent most of my life as a librarian. My up and down career as a writer, on the other hand, has afforded me much satisfaction and very little money. In fact, except for a few years when I worked as a staff writer for a small and specialized publishing house, it has never been a “career” at all. Because it’s not my principal livelihood, I can write what I want, when I want for a small but select readership that, from what I can tell, generally appreciates my efforts and sometimes (just to keep things interesting) rips me to shreds. My real career as a librarian is all very well, but since it’s fundamentally a paycheck, I can’t muster excessive enthusiasm for an institution that provides a lifelong education free of charge for the broadest conceivable public and generally represents American values at their best. I didn’t major in English to serve American values. I majored in English so that I could spend the rest of my life arguing about books and culture, even if I had to do so in my off hours, even if the argument was chiefly with myself. I still think it was the best decision I ever made.
So what do today’s redoubtable, courageous, and zealous English majors have to look forward to — a life as exiguous or compromised as my own? They should be so lucky. Their prospects are considerably bleaker and their college debts considerably steeper. The fortunate few will get tenure-track positions or the rare editorial job that may allow them to pay off their debts in less than a lifetime. The rest will find alternatives (note to panicky English majors contemplating life after graduation: anyone can be a librarian) or work as indentured servants in the academy, perhaps moonlighting as waitresses or tutors. I hope they’ll be able to tell themselves what I’ve never doubted: It was worth it.