On the Practical Benefits of Impractical Pursuits
Inspired by Henry Mackenzie, The Mirror
by Rachel Hamburg
It is a strange fact of nature that, when a powerful entity grows suddenly less powerful, it pulls even those people who seemed never acquainted with it into its weakening embrace. The more powerful the force, it sometimes seems, the more men it manages to encompass—there are some who hold out for a time, but eventually even the strongest feel its effects. Such a force is the American economy. In these shrouded days, as the stock market plunges and entire industries close down, even those gentlemen who were never before in want, who never had to sully the private end with pursuits of mammon, are suddenly riveted to the news, their eyes narrowing with newly discovered needs.
The class which is perhaps most adversely affected is the senior class of university students, who entered school with the promise of respectable jobs in law or medicine and who leave with only the promise of trepidation, weeks of eating only cup-o-noodles, and a thousand job interviews. Of this class, the English majors seem most in danger, having spent their school years learning the nuances of fine art, taste, and culture—in short, nothing of practicality whatsoever.
It is out of this concern, that I have haunted local coffee shops, where in previous years I found my classmates discussing thick novels over stimulating beverages. What wisdom or comfort I might have provided them, none of us will ever discover, for there were none of them to be found. The velvety chairs at Coupa Café were fluffed, but there were none to depress them; Café del Doge looked bare and sterile with no men of fashion to complement its minimalism. I concluded that all of my companions had taken ill with hopelessness and departed for my own home in no less disconsolate a mood. It was in this humor that I wrote my dear friend Maxwell Reed, who had idled away his youth reading philosophers ancient and modern, and conveyed my wonder as to where he would turn in the dark days to come.
I waited for several weeks for his response, and had nearly given him up for dead when I received the following reply, which, as I am sure my readers will agree, I could never have foreseen.
Palo Alto, 15th February 2009
When I read the date of this letter and compare it to the date of the one you sent, I am filled with a strange kind of wonder. You imagine that my lack of reply was due to melancholy at best, or at worst, death, but the truth is far stranger. I confess that I have been so taken up with my new position, that I feel as if these moments are the first available ones in weeks that I may sit in silent thought, or talk with a friend.
Your letter expressed concern for all the former members of the coffee house society, and you worried quite kindly that they were incapacitated by concerns for their livelihoods, and no longer able to do those things that they have loved all of their lives—that the days of discussing art and literature with fellows equal in taste are truly over. You will be happy to know, my friend, that your concerns are quite unfounded, and that things are not at all so bad for the thinking man as your letter supposed.
Only a month ago I shared your worries. I had received a most unwelcome visit from one Deborah Credit, a debt collector, who informed me that my inheritance had not only been lost, but was entirely over-withdrawn, and that I would need to enter the practical world post-haste. After she left, I searched frantically around my lodgings for my resume, only to remember, several hours later, that I have not and never have had such a document. As you know, all of my joys in this world have been indolent ones—I have read a great deal, and thought a great deal, and written a great deal for my own betterment—and until the recent plunge in job availability, I thought this would be enough to admit me to some respectable position upon my graduation from university. I have no other skills to recommend myself, besides an acceptable hand at drawing and a command of French. This realization, as I am sure you can imagine, put me in no small degree of panic, but I am happy to assure you that it was baseless.
As my non-material resume could never have been selected from a pile of material competitors, I appealed to my friend Lexie Connection, the only member of our club who has held a sustained job in business, for a recommendation. (It behooves a man of fashion, especially one without a resume, not to recommend himself, but to be recommended.) The next day, I found that she had got me an interview at a reputable consulting firm. More importantly, she left me with this invaluable advice: not to de-emphasize that my great passion is great literature, but rather to emphasize it, as it is so different from the passions of those countless persons who are actually qualified for the job.
To my great good luck, I arrived five minutes late to my interview, and happened upon a very petite interrogator sitting at a very imposing desk. I apologized for my lack of punctuality, and she replied, by way of reassuring me, that she had used the time to read her copy of Vanity Fair, and could very well have gone on reading it for another five minutes without any notice of my absence at all.
She did not seem much interested, in fact, in beginning the interview. Unsure of the nature of such interludes, and certain that I would show myself to greatest advantage in discussions pertaining to culture rather than to finance, I told her that I have often read Vanity Fair with a great deal of pleasure, and that the wit and truth I so often find within its pages are truly inspiring to every man and woman of any degree of refinement.
Thackeray, I concluded, was certainly one of the most insightful writers in the English language.
She looked at me in amazement, and informed me that she not only agreed, but that she had never come across a man of my age who loved Victorian novels as well as she. She added, her eyes shining, that she had mentioned her reading habits to several previous applicants, including a former CEO, and they had all assured her that the magazine was wonderful, and that they thought Annie Leibovitz a fine photographer. I was the first, my friend, who realized that when she referenced Vanity Fair, she was referring to the novel!
After this fortunate first introduction, the interview went better than I ever could have imagined. Ms. Wordsworthy, I believe, had had so many unmemorable conversations that day, that an illuminating conversation with a man who has never accomplished anything of a material nature was her most memorable by far. Indeed, the only practical questions she asked me were when I could begin work and what salary I should like. As I write to you, I have worked an entire month in the financial business without knowing so much as how to make a spreadsheet.
Therefore, worry no more, for our departed companions absent from the coffee-houses. They have not given up culture, but have brought it to the skyscrapers.
Most Sincerely and Affectionately Yours,
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