When I graduated, I was certain that I would soon be back to school as a graduate student in English literature—the first step in emulating the life of the professors I’d come to admire (and to envy) over my years in the department. And while I did take the advice these same professors gave me—“Don’t apply right away, take a year or two off, you never know!”—I was certain my interim professional dabbling would not entice me away from the academic future I’d imagined. Little did I know that those two years I’d planned to take before going to graduate school would bloom into almost a decade at Columbia University Press, where I spend my days talking to professors and writers about their work, reading and shaping books, and fully engaging in the intellectual community (all without having to go through the trouble of getting a Ph.D!).
Books are the happy commonality between the work I do now and the work that inspired me at Princeton. In retrospect, I realize my English courses taught me a crucial lesson: that all different kinds of texts can delight, challenge, inspire. As the press editor in Economics and US History, I acquire and develop books in areas I had no particular appetite for as an undergraduate. Instead, I was cramming my semesters with English, comparative literature, and theory, and if I’d been left to my own devices, I would have focused solely on late twentieth century fiction.
But the pesky requirements of the English major led me, for instance, into a 9 AM seminar on Spenser’s Faerie Queene with Jeff Dolven. His delight in the work was contagious, and opened the text up to questions that I thought could be asked only of modern literature. It was a wonderful class, but the experience was not unique. I’d written off whole centuries and genres of books as “not for me,” only to see them brought into a fascinating new light, one course after another.
As my work at Columbia University Press took me into a very different world of books—non-fiction, often with a significant quantitative component—I was able to read with an open mind, searchingly, for not only what the texts were but also what they could become. It’s been a sideways route into academia, certainly, but one that revolves around what lured me into the major in the first place—good writing and good books.