The Unsung Benefits of an English Degree

So I’m having a conversation with my partner about college degrees and the necessity of them, how long you’ve held them (to remain undisclosed), and their effectiveness in today’s job market. Her point was a nice one, but with a pretty standard, almost imperceptible ding at the end: “It’s not like,” she argues, “You have an Engineering degree you haven’t used in 20 years. You have an English degree! You use that every day! You know, for writing…emails. And talking to people! And other stuff.”

Yes, I sighed, I have the degree that I can happily put to good use every single day. When auto-correcting sentences in my head. (It’s not a mute point!!) When answering the tough coworker questions that put me on point: Is it “affect” or “effect”?, they’ll demand, partly hoping I’ll get it wrong. (I always check my handy reference guides. I can never remember that one.) And when being asked to edit a document-usually for spelling, which, anyone heard of every single word processing and email’s spell checker function?

I get it. I have a wonderful, all-encompassing, very practical degree that I use every single day. It’s not generally considered a specialty because we all practice it, in some form. It’s not, in most circles, considered advanced because we all type and send emails (that’s English!), talk to each other (again with the English), and read stuff in the English language just about every second of every day. It’s just what you do.

But there’s the other side of the plain old English degree that most people just don’t get. Like the part where I can (and, happily, will!) recite the prologue to The Canterbury Tales every April (“with his shoures soote”). Or giggle at fun word games my family likes to play when we get together. (My dad went off on an extended riff for about a year on the phrase “up in here” – it was about two years after the phrase was popular, but still. It was fun.) Using ‘big words’ in casual conversation. The wonder of browsing every garage sale, library sale, used book store, new bookstore, library, doctors office waiting room tables and airplane seat-front for new and exciting reading material, or old and exciting reading material that’s dusty and musty and smells like heaven, just because it’s a book. At my cousin’s recent wedding at CalTech, I noticed that, included in the rooms reserved for the ceremony was a library. So the partner & I slipped away during dessert to sneak pictures in this tall, tony, luxuriously leather-bound hideaway. They remain my favorite pics from the event.

And then there are the authors. Without the English degree, I might never have gravitated towards book reviewing (author stalking). Every time I’ve reached out to an author – as a civilian, as a MFA student, as a fellow writer, and as a book loving reviewer – each and every single time I’ve come away touched, humbled, and completely in love with the writer in question.

The night before my first book review interview, with Thomas Christensen, author of the historical adventure 1616: The World in Motion, I was so completely nervous I had panic attacks and could not sleep. The interview went fine: Christensen had been a book reviewer himself, which helped. He had lots of sympathy and even a bit of a warning about not doing the review part for too long. Like living in San Francisco or New York: you get too soft or too hard. Move around a bit.

And the falling in love part really does happen. When I interviewed Robin Sloane, the brilliant and wonderfully conversational author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, my iPhone hated me. It dropped the call not once but THREE TIMES during our 45-minute chat, and each time the effervescent Sloane laughed, brushed it off, and continued his captivating anecdote. We talked about everything – “shoes–and ships–and sailing wax–of cabbages–and kings,” and it was all good. That enticed me to sign up for his email blast list (to keep tabs on his goings on), and I’ve been getting updates from the field ever since.

I set up international calling on my phone at my own expense, just so that I could catch up with Luisa Weiss, who was now in Germany, as suits the author of My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes). Imagine my delight to be post-memoir spoiled: Luisa was talking to me whilst taking care of her new baby, which meant that she and her husband, who she married at the end of the book – omg! It was just too much cuteness.

And I was already completely sprung on the delightful, roguish Michael Chabon, fresh off the pages of reading Telegraph Avenue, when I rang him up. And it just got better. He was taking a walk along the beach, with his dog happily barking the the background, while we talked about love, Berkeley/Oakland, the extinction of beloved record stores, and sidewalk hustlers. I could picture his curly dark locks blowing in the ocean breeze, his beautiful mind already working on the next tome, what I’d say to him when we met at the book release party the next week. (Answer-nothing. The place was packed, I got completely flustered, and anyway, he would not have remembered me.) But the point is – I got what I needed, and carry that sweet memory with me to this day.

But what brought this reminiscence on today is Rachel Kadish. Once I finished her latest novella, I Was Here, I actually went to her website, looked up her contact info, and sent off a note of appreciation and thanks. The book really touched me, and I felt that she had to know. I was sure my email would be lost in a sea of others, if the address even pointed to Rachel herself, and not a bot or harried intern. But nope, Rachel-the-writer wrote me back, just hours later, and the first words of her note were this:

Dear Alison,
What a gift this email was! Thank you so much for getting in touch….

We went on to have just a regular old discussion about her inspiration for the novella, what she’s experiencing now, post-publication, and a promise to check back for the eventual piece. It completely made my day, but what really surprised me is that it made her happy, too.

But it shouldn’t have. Kadish is an English person. She, like the rest of us, are here for the love of books. Like English: it’s just what we do.

 

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