We asked our most recent graduates to submit entries to an essay-writing contest on the topic of what they’ve done with their B.A. degrees in English, and we received over thirty entries. Here are the full texts of the winning essay, by Lindsay King, and the three second place submissions by Kaelan Connella, Adrienne D’Luna, Ben Kahane.
A Tale of Two Cities
By Lindsay King
It started with the word ‘umbrella.’ I pictured an umbrella with a curved wooden handle, blue fabric, a button to open or close. I was crossing the riverbank under the veil of grey mist that signaled the approach of rain, combing my mind the way a computer combs through a database in search of a specific file, in desperate need of the word ‘umbrella.’ Umbrella, umbrella, umbrella…I felt the word hover on the tip of my tongue and evanescence teasingly into the October air with my hot breath. No luck.
Later that same week, it occurred again, with the word ‘vacuum.’ Vacuum! Of all things, vacuum! Words left foggy patches in my mind, disappearing entirely from my internal dictionary. One month later, it slipped into my grammar, my syntax, my diction. ‘He knows’ became ‘he know,’ my ‘I need you’s’ became ‘I have need of you,’ and ‘subtleties’ became ‘subtilités.’ I was thrilled yet frustrated by this unforeseen impediment: my complete bilingualism has begun to thwart my mother tongue and my French was unmistakably interfering with my English.
English is my first language and English literature has been my indisputable academic forte and love since elementary school: in the second grade I was sent to another class to do ‘higher’ level language arts, in junior high my eighth grade English teacher helped me edit my novellas, and in high school I was Hermione Granger in the flesh during discussions of works ranging from Hawthorne to Allende to Tim O’Brien. It was consequently unthinkable, upon my arrival at Cal as a freshman, to major in anything but English. Nevertheless, like many an humanities major, and more so, an English major, I felt pressured to justify my choice of study not based on my pure passion for the field, but in terms of practicality: just what was I going to do with an English degree?
It occurred to me at some point during my first year at Berkeley that I could perhaps justify my field of study by pairing it with something more…say…practical. I then made the entirely logical and completely rational decision that I could offset the ‘impracticality’ of studying English by double majoring in English and French. I can still hear my stepdad’s laughing yet somewhat worried and probably thinking-about-student-loan-repayment chuckle over my cell phone the fall of my sophomore year when he exclaimed what are you going to do with that? And at first, my response was—again—naturally like that of many an English major: I’m going to be a lawyer! Somewhere along the road though, as I wandered through Wordsworth’s The Prelude and crisscrossed to Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, I figured out that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I stopped attempting to justify my choice of majors; it was enough that I loved them. I then stopped worrying about what I would do with my degrees and started worrying more about who I would become thanks to my degrees.
As I plunged forward into my studies, I fell in love ten times over with words themselves, infatuated by the richness of two of the most storied traditions in all of western literature. I was spellbound by the way reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions for Professor Justice’s English Medieval literature class influenced my interpretation and understanding of Rousseau’s Confessions in Professor Blocker’s class on Early Modern French literature, the way in which the two majors complimented and bolstered each other. My final semester at Cal, I took one English class: Professor Bernstein’s infamous Proust in translation class. I swallowed with rapacious and guilty pleasure In Search of Lost Time’s beautiful sentences, desiring to approach them in the original to discover their rhythm and sound. I did exactly this in my final paper for the Berkeley English department: I examined metaphors and plays on words of mimetic constructions were lost in even the most brilliant English translations of Proust’s work. My career as an English undergraduate at Berkeley bears indelibly the stamp of its French sister, and the joint listings of “English and French” on my diploma speak to a yin and yang of languages and literary traditions which I felt were stronger when studied in complement to one another rather than as wholly separate traditions.
My shared love of French and English literature led me to apply to the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program in France during my senior year at Berkeley, as I was certain that I wanted to pursue graduate work in French but aware that I needed a non-academic but enriching and productive year off from formal studies. Although I was not ultimately selected for the Fulbright, I was recognized as one of fifty Fulbright finalists and awarded a position as an English Teaching Assistant with the French government. After eight years as a serious student of the French language, I was elated to finally have the chance to live and work in the country whose literary works had shaped much of my college career. While I had never before been abroad, I moved to France in the fall of 2010 to work as an English teacher in a suburb of Paris a mere three months after my graduation from Berkeley.
My first week in France was filled with linguistic confusion as my mouth and tongue labored to adapt to speaking French sans cesse. Inside the Paris metro stations where I changed trains for work, I noticed ads for the “Wall Street Institute of English,” a school offering courses in ‘true business English,’ in person, but also over the phone! Within the city itself, I caught menus and maps in messy and ungrammatical English. I regularly walked past a pizzeria called Speed Rabbit Pizza and to this day, I cannot fathom what the owners were trying to convey by naming their business after a ‘speed rabbit’: didn’t they know that speed and rabbit were both nouns? In those early days of living in the French capital, I sought out English language novels at the famous Shakespeare and Co. shop on the Left Bank and found myself happily giggling when, in the used book section, I stumbled upon an antique version of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. It made me recall my days at Berkeley and reminded me that, while I was fully immersed in the world of the French language, my native tongue still surrounded me as well. In that moment, and in countless moments since, I found myself astounded by the presence of the English language within the capital of the French-speaking world.
In all franc-ness, perhaps I should not have been as surprised. It was Guillame the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion and conquest of England that allowed words such princesse to morph into princess, boeuf into beef, and become naturalized into the English lexicon. In 1638, it was the English Queen Henrietta Maria who commanded an English language version of Corneille’s Le Cid be produced for the stage, and in the 1920, the so-called Lost Generation of American expatriate writers, made up of the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, composed many of their most renowned works in the cafes and salons of Paris. For more than one thousand years, be it in the realms of literature or politics, the French and Anglo-Saxon languages have been intimately intertwined.
My time abroad in France and my background as both an English and French major has allowed me to embrace the intertwining of these two cultures, of the sometimes tenuous and other times amicable relationship between these two sister countries, languages, and literary traditions. I have never been more convinced that literature is profound and sublime extension of the people and cultures which produce it, and had it not been for my undergraduate experience in both English and French, I do not know if I would have been able to come to appreciate or understand this reality as deeply as I currently do. Had I simply focused on what I was planning to do with my degrees rather than on who I was going to become, I know that I would not have grown into being the young woman that I am today, a young woman capable of accepting the nuance and force of a literary interpretation, and possessed with a skill set which allows her to approach a book or culture in a manner which goes against the typical interpretation and speaks to the training she received during her time in the Berkeley English and French departments.
My time at Berkeley led me, like so many young American women, to fall in love with the French language, but it was my year in the country that led me to fall in love with France itself, and by the end of my time there, I had decided to stay and accepted an offer of admissions to the Université de Paris III Sorbonne-Nouvelle where I am now enrolled as a graduate student of French Literature and am working towards my Masters degree. I have a small studio on the Rue de Varenne in the 7th arrondissement, just across the street from where Edith Wharton lived during her Parisian years, a fact I am reminded of daily due to the stone plaque mounted on the wall of her former building. Presented in a simple rather than ostentatious font, this piece of expatriate history beckons quietly for attention from passers-by, and prompts a smile from me whenever I pass it. I smile because I know that, like many an English-speaking expatriate to Paris, it is only by becoming exterior to my native language and literature that I am able to more clearly see boundaries such as this one, the line where the two cultures rush up to meet one another.
Of course, in being able to see these meeting points of the French and English worlds more clearly, I have found myself succumbing to the occasional slip of the mind and the tongue. English words that were once second nature have been dethroned by their French cousins, and lately my friends in California have noted that, during our Skype calls, my spoken English is inflected with something of an unconscious French accent. As an English major, I will state that these lapses in grammar are the result of living in a world which is dominated by my second tongue, and one could even argue that my expatriation and pursuit of graduate degrees in French has rendered my English degree useless. But this could never be farther from the real truth.
Trying to Make a Difference in South Central Los Angeles
By Kaelan Connella
Yesterday at work, three sixth grade students brought illegal narcotics to school. A student flash mob resulted in two students with broken legs and one with a broken arm. A teacher requested a substitute for her English class because her son in a neighboring community was sent to the hospital with a shotgun wound near his heart. A student was absent from school because she was visiting her mother in jail. My success for the day—a student with whom I have been working closely attended every one of his classes.
I work at a middle school in South Central Los Angeles for a non-profit organization called Communities In Schools of Los Angeles, or CISLA. CISLA, formerly Communities In Schools of Los Angeles West or CISLAW, is an organization interested in preventing young students from dropping out of school and has expanded to the east side of Los Angeles for the first time this year. I graduated from Berkeley this past May and began applying for jobs both in the Bay Area and my hometown of Los Angeles several months before commencement. Anxious about the prospect of entering today’s job market and focused on completing my honors thesis, I remained hopeful that my degree would help open doors. I had worked as a tutor for four years, had been an editor for UC Berkeley’s journal of literary criticism called The Folio, and had extensive experience working in schools, including working as an instructional aid at a school for autistic students two years ago. So while my resume was not long, it was not empty. Summer came, and I finally heard back from AmeriCorps who offered me a volunteer position with CISLA at a middle school. I had received job offers from only two other companies and since I love working with kids, I decided to volunteer.
When I found out I would be working at a school located in a warehouse district in Compton (a notoriously dangerous section of Los Angeles), I was a little apprehensive. When I discovered staff and students could not wear any red clothing due to gang activity in the surrounding neighborhood, I decided to accessorize my key ring with pepper spray. When our one security guard told us that the school averages one lockdown per year, I decided to give my parents a slightly modified sketch of my new job. Despite everything I was told, I was excited to begin. I would have the opportunity to serve my community and would gain valuable experience I could apply to any career.
As the daughter of an English teacher and as a former English major at Berkeley, I had always aspired to become a teacher myself; however, as the daughter of a teacher and having been a student of the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) system for 13 years, I was also aware of the challenges California public schools face, such as overcrowded classrooms and pay-cuts. Our middle school is no different. Some of our classes have 52 students, others a slightly more manageable 40. With one security guard, no dean, and a LAPD police officer who rotates between our school and a nearby elementary school, the school certainly has its obstacles to overcome. At least a dozen staff and teachers were laid off last year and a handful of furlough days were added to the 2011-2012 calendar. Student ditching is a chronic problem, tagging is prevalent and many students belong to notorious neighborhood gangs. In an environment like this, it is no surprise that students have a difficult time staying in school.
During the CISLA orientation, I learned that, on average, a student drops out of school every nine seconds in America. After extensive research, it was proven that early intervention is key to dropout prevention. As a Communities In Schools AmeriCorps volunteer, I serve as a kind of life coach and mentor for approximately 50 students at my school who were identified as “at-risk” students; meaning, these students are or may become at risk of dropping out of school due to factors such as having a high number of failing grades, an excessive number of “U’s” in work habits, chronic misbehavior and/or low school attendance. The local high school into which most of our middle school students feed has a dropout rate of 49.8 percent; in other words, approximately half of the student population, on average, drops out of school per year (one year rate formula). While this rate is alarming, it is not the highest in the LAUSD system. Working with my caseload students who face these statistics is not easy, but I keep track of student grades, attendance and extracurricular activities in an attempt to prevent each student from becoming one of those numbers.
I still remember the first student I brought into my office—it was not a clear-cut success. The student could not focus in her classes and was brought to tears every period because she so much despised the school. My colleague and I talked with her every day, found her resources, made referrals to community agencies, but we were not seeing progress. Eventually, we found her a new school that we felt might fit her better. I am not sure what became of her or if she likes her new school, but I hope for the best. With volunteering and non-profit jobs comes the inevitable realization that, despite your best efforts, you cannot always help everyone. There are too many students and not enough staff, but we do our best to ensure that we reach as many students as possible. It is the students I can help that make my job fulfilling and exciting. While it may seem that the majority of these middle school students are jaded and fated for failure, it is amazing how they will open up and discuss their lives with such intelligence, emotional awareness and innocence when given the opportunity. When a caring adult extends a helping hand, most young students will seize the chance to improve their lives and reach their goals. I have not known many students who actually wanted to fail, but I have met with dozens of students over the years who believed, for one reason or another, that they would. Showing them that success is possible is one of the most gratifying aspects of my job.
One student, Jorge (not his actual name), was assigned to my caseload because he was continually sent out of classrooms for harassment, use of profanity and other misbehaviors. He is only in seventh grade, but already has three LAPD issued tickets and a probation officer whose patience is running low. He never met his father and his mother works as a seamstress in a dilapidated warehouse across from the school, sowing together pieces of fabric for five cents apiece. The school was calling her so frequently because of her son’s delinquency that her manager told her not to return to work until she was ready to focus on her job. She burst into tears in our office one day because she did not know how to help her son.
Jorge was sent out of class one day for excessive talking and came into my office. We talked for a while, discussing ways to handle his frustration with teachers and why certain actions are disrespectful. Toward the end of the period he said, “Ms. Connella—why do we have to go to school?” I asked him why he thought he had to come to school. He thought for a second. Finally he said so he could “grow up and be somebody.” I said, “No Jorge, you already are somebody. You’re getting an education so you can show the world how great that somebody is.” He looked puzzled, until a huge grin spread across his face. We were interrupted by the PA system telling us that a group of students had broken into the emergency supply box and were spraying each other with fire extinguishers and destroying AMF radios. I walked Jorge back to class and assisted with the next crisis. Although Jorge was caught tagging last week and was sent out of a class for using profanity, he has attended every class on time this week and his teachers say they see an effort he has never before demonstrated. I enrolled him in a tutoring program I help facilitate and encouraged his involvement in a recycling program I started at the school (I tried to take my Berkeley values with me). He might not attend college, but it looks like he will definitely make it to high school, which is one step to having a longer and more successful life.
Not all cases are as challenging as Jorge’s, but even the smallest successes signify progress. Last week, we took a group of students who had perfect attendance in 2010 to USC for a guided tour of the campus and a presentation on college. Many of the students had never visited a college before and only a few knew about financial aid and scholarship opportunities prior to the trip. The students were amazed at how exciting college seemed. On their field trip reflection worksheets, most students said they now aspire to go to college and will try applying to USC. Since primarily all of our students live in a low socio-economic area, financial aid is essential, especially if students apply to private schools like USC. They were so proud of having earned the field trip and I enjoyed rewarding their successes. Not only did I believe in them, but they started believing in themselves, which I think is what every teacher, mentor and counselor wants to achieve.
I have been told by more than one person in my life that it is better to wake up in the morning looking forward to your job than strike it rich at a job for which you have no passion. I work from eight to four o’clock with students and am an English tutor for an afterschool enrichment program. I organize field trips, input data and, because of my English degree, am in charge of writing and editing many of our company forms and protocol. I volunteer to help teach a Saturday SAT prep class at a high school across town and work one-on-one with students who are struggling with the material. While my living stipend is modest, I am passionate about helping students succeed. Yesterday was a tough day, but I am still looking forward to tomorrow.
 See the California Department of Education DataQuest. <http://data1.cde.ca.gov>.
The Best-Kept Secret in the Western Working World
By: Adrienne D’Luna
The best-kept secret in the Western working world may well be the versatility of an English degree.
My B.A. in English is the direct result of my love for literature. Although I knew from the day I declared my major that I didn’t want to pursue my literary studies beyond a bachelors’ degree, I couldn’t imagine anything better than soaking up a stimulating education in English delivered by some of the most brilliant minds in the field. If college was the time to pursue what I loved, the mandated reading of fantastic literature was the path for me.
As soon as word of my newly-chosen degree path began to circulate amongst family and friends, I started fielding questions about my post-graduation plans, often peppered with skeptical commentary. I quickly tired of hearing, “English, huh? Good luck with that,” and “Let me guess, high school English teacher right? Or maybe you could be the next Stephen King.” But it was only after hearing these perceptions that I started to consider my degree the way the adults in my life seemed to think of it: as a means to an end, a way to get a job. Knowing I didn’t want to become a novelist, teacher, or career academic, I reflected on why everyone seemed to assume that my degree limited my potential career prospects. I had confidence in the skills I was learning from my education: my professors expected me to think critically and analytically, make sophisticated arguments, and exhibit excellent writing. There had to be a market for someone like me – it was just a matter of finding it.
Although I read novels for class instead of textbooks, I was interested in business, maybe law, and was eager to find out whether by indulging my passion for Shakespeare I’d inadvertently eliminated those opportunities. I played Twenty Career Questions with everyone I knew: my friends studying Econ and Business, my professors, my mother (also the proud owner of a B.A. in English), and the recruiters at every campus job fair in Pauley Ballroom. My business-oriented buddies told me they worked closely with the on-campus career center, and recommended career resources not often discussed in the halls of Wheeler. My professors suggested I explore internship opportunities which would allow me to apply my strong writing skills. And when one of my closest friends told me he thought I’d be good at “consulting,” a term I knew nothing about – I jazzed up my resume, put on my suit, and went to the career fair intent on learning more and selling my skills.
Representatives of companies recruiting Cal grads emphasized that what they were looking for was not any one particular background – but rather great analytical skills, a diligent work ethic, and a willingness and aptitude to learn whatever might be required. Studying English had given me all of the above. Early in my senior year, I crafted and delivered a personal sales pitch and resume that conveyed the value of my English education to each potential employer with which I interacted.
I still believe I was offered the business consulting internship with Deloitte Consulting LLP that led to a permanent job the following year because my resume brought something different to the table. A motivated English major with a can-do attitude is distinct in a sea of candidates with largely look-alike backgrounds.
When I began my career with Deloitte, I didn’t understand how little I really knew – I had never before been exposed to the terminology, expectations, or etiquette of this segment of the business world. The consulting model is somewhat unique: I worked almost exclusively on-site at the offices of clients, rather than at the offices of my employer. Instead of having one “boss,” I worked for and with a team of people to whom I was accountable. I received regular specific feedback on my work and professionalism through official and unofficial mechanisms.
Perhaps predictably given my background, my superiors repeatedly commented on the strength and consistency of my writing skills. My ability to write, honed by my Cal degree, proved to be tremendously useful and valued from a practical business perspective. I became the go-to proofreader, and my knack for effectively editing my clients’ work eventually earned me the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Bulldog D’Luna” from my coworkers. My writing skills were also transferrable to a business context: with minimal training, I learned to compose succinct business emails, draft formal communications to client stakeholder groups requiring information, and write extensive business process design manuals. As I gained experience and became better at integrating business savvy with my written and verbal communication skills, clients were often bemused to learn that my background was in English rather than business or economics.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there had also been truth to my old job hunt sales pitch. Studying English had taught me how to analyze and make sense of complex literary problems; at work, I was able to apply those same analytical skills to untangling the economic and efficiency-related problems a client organization might be facing. Although I had had limited prior business experience, I was immediately challenged to function as a problem solver on a special project in an industry I knew nothing about. Over the course of my time with Deloitte, I rotated projects every few months, working by turns in healthcare, life sciences, insurance, banking, and media. Each time one project wrapped up and I was assigned to another, the expectation was that I would educate myself on my new client, relevant industry specifics, and the business problem at hand. Beyond that, in order to be maximally effective in my client-service role, I needed to get to know the clients I worked with as soon and as well as possible.
My role as a consultant afforded me the opportunity to enter rooms that almost certainly would have been closed to me under other circumstances. As I developed deep advisory relationships with my client counterparts over time, I was invited to participate in board meetings concerning strategic business initiatives. I was incredibly lucky to get to meet and work with industry leaders at the tops of their fields. As I gained more experience and moved through a variety of projects and industries, each with a unique set of organizational challenges, I began to draw bigger connections between organizations and business models. As I applied the critical thinking skills I’d learned from my English classes to approach the business problems before me, I found myself more quickly able to spot the set of issues that was causing a business unit to stagnate, or pinpoint the process that could be streamlined to gain efficiencies.
Financial services particularly interested me, and I began to focus on gaining deeper industry insights and expertise. Because of the current risk and regulatory environment, there are a vast number of intersections between business and law, particularly within financial services. I noticed that time after time, at a crucial moment there would be someone in the room with a law degree who was functioning in a business capacity but was also equipped to understand the issue at hand on another, deeper, legal level. And after three challenging, rigorous, incredibly exciting years as a business consultant, I decided that I wanted to be able to be a person with that kind of deeper, legal knowledge.
This fall I’m a first-year law student at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. In many ways I’m beginning a new career, and yet here too I find the skills I developed as an English major to be exceptionally worthwhile. For obvious reasons my coursework requires facility at reading and writing. I frequently find myself appreciating that my undergraduate degree required me to learn how to draw abstract connections, and make related arguments. Although law school presents an entirely different level of complexity in its materials and expectations, this kind of work is familiar to me and I know I am a better law student because I learned to think this way as an undergraduate.
In the four years since I earned my Bachelor of Arts, I’ve learned that it’s much more important to know how to approach a problem than to know the solution. Berkeley’s English department gave me the ultimate preparation for life beyond the college campus: it taught me how to think.
It’s All About The Books: An English Degree in Action
By Ben Kahane
As I told my manager just the other night, any day where I can sell a copy of Maniac Magee, sell a copy of The Contortionist’s Handbook, sell a copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and place an order for the Collected Works of W.H. Auden, is a good day. Granted, the first two titles aren’t exactly related to my English degree, but are rather shining representatives of children’s literature and cult fiction respectively. The latter titles, however, do call up some memorable experiences from my English Major years: discussing the craft and controversy behind Mark Haddon’s narration with Georgina Kleege, and discovering Auden’s memorandum poetry in the colossal Oxford Book of American Poetry used for Robert Hass’ course. Those classes I took, the discussions we held, and the skills I learned have all found a fun home in my career after graduation: a happy seller of books at an independent bookstore. Forty hours a week for the past two and a half years, I’ve looked after the Books Inc. store in Alameda, where we sell the latest, pulpiest memoirs alongside the exalted, beautifully crafted novels of ages past, and just about everything in between.
It’s the exalted, beautifully crafted ones that I particularly love, so those are the ones that get my extra-special attention whenever I’m asked for recommendations. Of my many staff-reviewed books, I enjoyed and studied a hearty percentage of them under the guidance of my professors at Cal. In Josh Bishop’s seminar on the Contemporary Novel, I read Angela Carter’s macabre stories from The Bloody Chamber, Samuel Beckett’s circuitous curiosity Watt, and Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling Against the Day; from the reader for John Shoptaw’s course on Verse, I was enticed by inviting selections from Adrienne Rich’s Fox and Agha Shalid Ali’s Call Me Ishmael Tonight, and was further rewarded by pursuing the recommendation of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red; not to overlook the older works, I brought Staff Pick attention to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which I thoroughly dissected in Kent Puckett’s Victorian Literature) and a charming collection of Robert Burns’ poetry (which I studied in Janet Sorensen’s Scottish Literature); and beyond The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Georgina Kleege’s Literature and Disability class also introduced me to Katherine Dunn’s inimitable Geek Love and Pat Barker’s finely wrought Regeneration. This lengthy roll call doesn’t make up the entirety of my staff review selection (you’ll also see some offbeat poetry, some Wallace Shawn or Stephen King, and more of that children’s literature and cult fiction I mentioned earlier). However, their presence in the Staff Picks section is both purposeful and plentiful – a fact that I cherish daily, and that allows me on (good days) to earn some money for my store.
It ain’t all about the money; the money is certainly a relevant part of the equation, but it ain’t all about the money, else The Money would have found a space in my essay title. On the contrary, sharing the joyful and stimulating experience of reading can be done outside of the economic sphere: by simply discussing, and sharing with others, my love of the classics. Oftentimes, this will consist of rehashing some of the funnier or stranger moments of my UC Berkeley education for my colleagues at the bookstore (a few Cal alumni to be found among them). Occasionally, though, I will be given the opportunity to relate to and connect with those of my fellow English majors who are also key players in the industry: publisher representatives and, of course, published authors. These delightful and surprising moments can spring from the most obvious of places: attending the October convention for the NCIBA (Northern California Independent Booksellers Association) greatly increases the likelihood of literature-related conversations simply by putting large quantities of booklovers in the same room. My first year jumping into the NCIBA convention was a humbling experience at first (largely since my Alameda co-workers had not yet arrived, and I am a shy fellow at heart). I was eventually able to break the ice, as well as develop positive contacts in the industry, by chatting with one of the publisher reps. The course of our conversation, slow and tricky at first, became easier when we discovered a strong similarity: a love of Marcel Proust, and the rewarding challenge of taking on À la recherche du temps perdu. In fact, I’d say little makes for better English Major conversations than a good war story: those books which were most arduous, least comprehensible, and most illuminating over the course of a well-structured semester. Looking back, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising as all that to find another admirer of Proust at the NCIBA. One place I would never have expected to strike up such a conversation, though, would be “in the company of Harry Hamlin.” That’s correct: he of Clash of the Titans fame. That very October of 2010, coming back from the selfsame NCIBA convention, I arrived early for my closing shift at the bookstore, where we were hosting Harry Hamlin in promotion of his new memoir. Mr. Hamlin was in the back room, talking with the rest of the staff and getting a sense of what the afternoon would be like, while outside his many fans eagerly grabbed whatever seating they could find. I didn’t stay in the back for long, but I joined the conversation briefly; one thing lead to another, and the topic of our book discussion moved from his autobiography Full Frontal Nudity to, of all things, Finnegans Wake. Apparently the L.A. Law actor had enjoyed much Joyce in his time, and was happy to share his opinions as well as some pointers for getting through and appreciating some of the experimental work’s thicker moments.
As much I admire Marcel Proust and James Joyce, I’ve no intention of excluding my lighter, more popular, or (essentially) easier reading experiences from praise. In fact, much of the English canon has made its impact known at the bookstore not for being convoluted, but merely for being controversial. Every year at Books Inc., from the 30th of September through the 6th of October, we celebrate Banned Books Week, honoring titles new and old, for children or for adults, which have been the target of intolerance, censorship, and downright bigotry. The usual suspects populate our two-sided table display, from Lord of the Flies and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to Howl, The Jungle, and, most ironic of all, Fahrenheit 451. But what consistently comes up in viewing the selection, whether with co-workers or costumers, is the realization that so many of these once-racy titles have since become English Department regulars. My four years at Cal brought me in contact with a number of these once-Banned Books: I took on Lolita and The Great Gatsby with Namwali Serpell in her American Novel class; I sampled stories from The Canterbury Tales in English 45A with Janet Adelman; and returned to one of my all-time favorites, Heart of Darkness, for Gautam Premnath’s English 45C. Some of these novels aren’t exactly university-exclusive: both Professors Serpell and Premnath were quick to point out the frequency of their books’ appearances in high school syllabi. But they believed these titles to be worthy of higher appreciation and deeper comprehension, both of which were channeled marvelously over the course of the respective semesters.
Back in the realm of high school, many are not so fortunate in their range of teachers, and it shows on their faces whenever they walk through our bookstore door. They come in consistent waves: groups of teenagers huddled together, sullen and quiet or sarcastically chatty, sent at the behest of their AP teachers to obtain their own copies of one book or another. These less-than-enthusiastic youth are no longer limited by a fall-to-spring high school schedule, for their summer reading selections will bring them into the store just as regularly, and will just as regularly cast a visible glumness over them. In the face of such displays, I take it upon myself to comfort the poor creatures, reassuring them (as well as whichever parents or guardians may be present) that their assigned readings will not be so completely frown-worthy as they fear them to be. While my reassurances are often informed by comparing my own high school assignments with their own (as in the case of Animal Farm or The Catcher in the Rye), I find myself calling upon my college-level English just as often. When selling copies of Great Expectations to teens who, in all possibility, don’t even associate Charles Dickens with A Christmas Carol, I try to welcome them into Dickens’ world the way that Kent Puckett did for me in his Victorian class. Even when providing customer service to young readers of Shakespeare, nowhere near as young as when I was first introduced to the Bard, I hope to share my passion for Macbeth or Hamlet as Janet Adelman did for me in English 117B. In this way, perhaps my English degree gives me a chance to help others by assuaging the doubt evident in their long faces and blank stares when they’re told to read the classics.
Last but (with a bit of luck) not least, my English degree may find a hopeful future in the world of book blogging, an opportunity made possible by my position at the bookstore. For some months now, one of my regular customers at the store has taken an interest in my writing career, suggesting once or twice that I get in touch with the editor of a news and opinions website centered in Alameda. After much debate and uncertainty, I took up the kind woman’s offer and got in touch with the editor, who expressed an enthusiasm for a Local Voices blog concerned with books (reviews, events, or whatever else I had in mind). Although the editor’s approval of my first post is still pending, I can say with certainty that the review itself, no matter its fate, was made possible (or at least more readable) by my analytical training through the English department at UC Berkeley. The proper understanding of a novel’s rhetorical devices, the feel of an author’s themes and tones as instructed by a fine, close reading, and the overall articulation of good writing all find a place in that book review, and were all strengthened and polished by my years working towards a degree in English.
In full disclosure, the reviewed book in question was the latest translation of Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84; an outstanding piece in its own right, but still a touch too new for immediate acceptance into the ranks of even the most contemporary of Contemporary Novel syllabi. If pressed, however, I would have to admit to its being a wonderful marriage of a popular read and a literary work, the union of which occurs everyday at the bookstore where I spend my hours. Whether behind the counter, out among the bigwigs, or alone at home for the sake of a book blog, I remain a constant supporter and promoter of celebrated writing and critical literature, not so much in lieu of the torrents of less intellectual books that I encounter, but rather alongside them, informing them and accompanying them all throughout. In adherence to Chaucer’s union of “sentence and solace,” I too promote the happy blend of popular reading, in all its entertaining glory, with truly masterful books worthy of love and study.