Once we were mighty. Once we were legion. Once we reigned over colleges and universities like demigods. Well, OK, we English majors were never that important, except maybe in our own eyes. According to a report in the New York Times, degrees awarded in English at American universities fell from seven point six percent of the total in 1971 to three point one percent of the total in 2011 — which goes to show, I suppose, that the golden age was never quite so golden. Still, better the periphery than where we are now — the periphery of the periphery.

One of the less-happy consequences of my decision to major in English 40 years ago is that I haven’t met many (or any) people who share my enthusiasm for the writings of John Dryden. Another is that I make about as much money as a janitor and live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I knew what I signed up for. My life sentence as an English major has taught me not to care overly much about what are laughingly called “the good things in life.” For better or worse, I can’t look at the glossy advertisements in The New Yorker without a feeling of cognitive dissonance. How could anyone who reads the poems and short stories and criticism in that magazine really want all that crap? If that’s a prejudice, the fault lies in me, not in my discipline, which includes plenty of practitioners with a somewhat more realistic financial outlook than my own. Anyway, for me, it’s less a discipline than a passion. I expect that that beleaguered three point one percent on campuses today feel much the same way. Against the advice of their parents, the social pressure of their peers, and the severely utilitarian direction of American society, they obdurately go on piling up their useless, unremunerative literary courses. See the trouble you get into when you listen to your soul? More… “English Majors’ Twilight”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.

In the 1984 novel The Boys on the Rock, by John Fox, a 16-year-old student relays scandalous information about a pair of identical twin brothers on his high school swim team. “I was forever hearing rumors about them being incestuous and things like that from guys who didn’t even know them,” the narrator reports. “They got called pretty insulting things right to their face but they didn’t give a shit.” On this the teenager offers clarification: “I don’t mean they just pretended not to give a shit, I mean they truly did not care what anyone thought about them.”

This passage resurfaced from the depths of my consciousness recently while I read every extant interview with Woody Allen I could get my hands on, though I’m not alluding to sexual innuendo about the director. Yes, Allen did seem oblivious to the uproar that ensued in January 1992 after Mia Farrow — his longtime romantic partner and the star of 13 consecutive films under his direction — discovered in his Manhattan apartment racy photographs of her 21-year-old daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom Allen later married. Eric Lax, whose updated Conversations with Woody Allen (2009) is the most recent edition of book-length Allen interviews, dealt with the Soon-Yi material previously in the revised 2000 edition of Woody Allen: A Biography. “Woody has a remarkable ability to compartmentalize his life,” Lax wrote then of the custody battle that ensued over Farrow and Allen’s three children. By so saying, Lax seems to have originated what is now the most oft-repeated maxim about the filmmaker: in Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012), the director Robert B. Weide assembled a brief montage of Allen’s friends and colleagues, each repeating the same line about Woody’s ability to compartmentalize his life. All evidence points to Allen similarly taking this compartmentalization approach toward allegations that he sexually molested his and Farrow’s seven-year-old daughter.  (After an investigation, the police brought no such charges against the director.) Allen himself explained at the time of his legal wrangling that, in all the months of public and private turmoil (which cost him $7 million in lawyers’ fees alone), he was not distracted for a moment from his creative work. When he informed his friends of this fact, they thought something was wrong with him — that he had a surprising lack of feeling, as Allen phrased it. “But it isn’t so,” the director insisted. “I had the appropriate feeling at the time, but my work is a separate thing.”

More… “The Teflon Director”

Myles Weber is the author of Consuming Silences: How We Read Authors Who Don’t Publish. His literary criticism appears frequently in such journals as The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, The Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review, Salmagundi, and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is an associate professor of English at Winona State University in Minnesota.

I was 16 years old when I ran away from home on a December night in Ottawa, Canada where the typical monthly temperatures range from ten to 21 degrees Fahrenheit at night. I had no choice. My mother was an alcoholic and I was the only family member left on whom she could vent an increasingly dangerous rage.
More… “Try a Little Tenderness”

Wendy McElroy is the author of thirteen books, several dozen documentaries and hundreds of articles that have been published in venues ranging from Penn State University to Penthouse magazine.
Presenting today's news

If you’re in the midst of a career change, I’ve got some advice: dress for the job you want. So, do you want to be a D.C. reporter? Or a punk rocker? (Lapham’s Quarterly, The Smart Set)

Once you’ve landed the job (no doubt due, in part, to your stunning wardrobe choices), celebrate your newfound success with a classy vacation. Paris, perhaps? The louvre? See the Mona Lisa, a work famous for its mystery — first for its perplexing theft (initially pinned on Pablo Picasso) and now for its enigmatic subject. (The Smart SetOpen Culture)

Once you’ve got the dream job and seen the world, you may be thinking of starting a family. Whether you are a SINK (Single Income No Kids) or half of a DINK (Double Income No Kids), you just want the best for your potential offspring. Which may, it turns out, mean having fewer juniors than previously thought. (The Smart SetJSTOR Daily) •


Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

From Mad Men and White Collar to Dirty Jobs and Grey’s Anatomy, TV may tell us a lot about how we view our work — and, moreover, how we should. For some, it’s just a job, but for others, it’s a life calling. Maybe we can learn more about our professions by staying on the couch than we can by joining the workforce. (Aeon)

Ad blockers are gaining popularity, maybe because they can save mobile users more than just the headaches caused by strobe-like video ads. A new report by the New York Times shows that, depending on the ratio of advertising to content, blockers can shave seconds off loading times and cents off data bills for each page. (The New York Times)

There’s a constant battle to explain why the rising price of a college education seems to raise demand, defying the usual models. There’s a term for this — a Veblen good — and it’s got mostly to do with the price of prestige. (The Baffler)

Is it time for “he” and “she” to go the way of “Miss” and “Mrs.”? Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin argues that gender, like marital status, should not be brought up in journalistic stories unless pertinent. Here’s a historical and political case for the singular “they.” (In These Times)

Looking for something to read this weekend? Sink into some science. (Seed Magazine) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
Even when the truck doesn't come, the beans must go on.

Amina sits idle in the shade of her makeshift restaurant. A pot of boiling kidney beans near her toes and a cardboard case of fifteen brown eggs remind her of the work to be done, the work she can’t do yet. She counts the eggs again, tapping her henna-orange fingernail on the shit-and-feather encrusted shells, one by one. She arrived in the upper-class Hara Mus neighborhood of Djibouti City in the gray dawn haze before the construction workers appeared, before the first call to prayer, before the sun slinked through low clouds over the Gulf of Tadjourah.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a writer raised in the Christian west who now lives in the Muslim east. Her work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post among others. Find out more at her… More…


You can tell a lot about a person by the relationship she has with time — what she values, how she works, and often where she came from. I have often wondered if my own anxiety about the wide expanse of the day goes back to my rural Kansas upbringing. Barred from watching television and encouraged (pushed) to explore the outdoors, the way I view the hours of the day correlates with the view of the horizon: flat, never ending, bichromal. I wake in the morning to wonder how in the world I will ever find a way to break that expanse into manageable chunks without falling into boredom or uselessness.

Time by Eva Hoffman. 224 pages. Picador. $14.00

Whether it’s the American motto “time is money,” or the Eastern European saying “When man is in a hurry,… More…


My boss is standing on the other side of my desk credenza at 9:30 in the morning and saying in a rather animated way, “E to the D to the ER. You are the Eeee-derrrr.” And I know he believes this name — E to the D to the ER — mitigates the fact that he’s an absolute bastard to me in e-mails and when he is having a bad day, but it doesn’t. Unmoved by our shared moment, I lean further toward my computer screen as if I need to concentrate on something important and have not just Googled my own name again only to learn the results are no different today than they were yesterday. “Joseph, I put some mail on your desk,” I tell him. I hope my tone sounds beat down and disinterested because that’s exactly how I feel.

I have a nickname for him, too,… More…

The Titanic lost 1,500 people; our columnist lost her CDs.

As the ship sank I smirked. At the time I thought it wasn’t appreciated by the panicked crew members and passengers I was assisting onto rescue boats, but I couldn’t help it. Each addition to the drama — the arrival of a Coast Guard chopper overhead, the slight tilt of the ship toward Alaskan glacial melt, and, especially, the donning of the orange mobility-retarding life preservers — confirmed a suspicion that I was, in fact, the butt of some sort of cosmic joke.

That summer I landed a job as a steward on a small ship called the Wilderness Adventurer that carried sea kayaks for seven-night, soft-adventure cruises in Alaska’s Inside Passage. I turned out to be a pretty bad waitress and a slow cleaner of rooms.

The sky was never totally dark in June, and at night I would talk to Kelly, my roommate from Kansas who called passengers… More…

On the empty surface of the East Antarctic ice cap, about 680 miles from the South Pole, I kneeled inside a fluttering tent to fiddle with the HF radio dial. It was mid-December of 2000, peak summer in the heart of the Earth’s austral region. Our thermometer stretched toward a balmy 15°F as the sun spun elliptically overhead like a child’s flashlight.

After several days in camp, I was finally starting to relax. I’d been out in the middle of this bright white nowhere before, but I’d never been in charge. This time I’d taken on the responsibility to build and maintain an Antarctic field camp, a line of work that punishes even small mistakes. While we were unlikely to fall into crevasses, develop scurvy, or freeze to death, I had no desire to radio the authorities at McMurdo Station and request a special flight to bring out a forgotten… More…