Book Notes

Allen R. Dodd, Jr.’s The Job Hunter is the flip-side of “Mad Men”. This is what the world of 1960′s advertising–of the white-collar workplace in general–looks like from the outside looking in. Subtitled “The Diary of a ‘Lost’ Year,” The Job Hunter began as an article in the 30 November 1962 issue Printer’s Ink–at the time one of the leading trade journals of the advertising business. Although Dodd acknowledges in his introduction that his first-person narrator is “a composite figure, a typical white-collar job-seeker, created from a variety of sources,” he fully succeeds in creating a believable character from what could easily be a stereotype of one of John Cheever’s middle-aged train-catching commuters.

“It’s going to be tough on the company, of course, but the last thing in the world we’d want to do is to stand in your way,” Dodd’s nameless narrator is told one July afternoon by one of his higher-ups in a mid-sized ad firm. And so he is evicted from the world of the working and left to find another position, a process that takes him the better part of a year. Although many of the practical aspects of job-hunting have changed–Dodd’s narrator has little else besides the help wanted ads and a few business directories to go on–The Job Hunter is very effective in conveying the sense of being a social outcast that inevitably clings to a man without a job, particularly a white-collar professional.

The Neglected Books Page

Also from The Neglected Books Page:

In 1939, Rollo Walter Brown was 59, a former Harvard professor of literature, a popular lecturer, and a dangerous man. In I Travel by Train, he recalls some of his many trips across the United States through the depths of the Depression. His work as a lecturer on literature, politics, and history took him to all corners of the country, from San Francisco to New Orleans and Atlanta, from the industrial towns of Michigan and Ohio to the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and north Texas. Wherever he went, he made a point of venturing out and trying to understand what was going on and why.

Check out the utterly charming drawings accompanying the I Travel by Train post. Graphic novels are not such a new concept, it turns out….

“One of Irina’s grandsons, nicknamed Riri, was sent to her at Christmas.”

“One of Irina’s grandsons, nicknamed Riri, was sent to her at Christmas. His mother was going into hospital, but nobody told him that. The real cause of his visit was that since Irina had become a widow her children worried about her being alone. The children, as Irina would call them forever, were married and in their thirties and forties. They did not think they were like other people, because their father had been a powerful old man. He was a Swiss writer, Richard Notte. They carried his reputation and the memory of his puritan equity like an immense jar filled with water of which they had been told not to spill a drop.” – from the short story Irina, by Mavis Gallant (Paris Stories collection)

Paris Stories is a beautiful collection. The short story Irina has the most vivid sense of place – it’s all a feeling of hushed, chilled, snowy air outside, and the quiet of an apartment unused to children inside:

“At half past four, when the windows were as black as the sky in the painting of tulips and began to reflect the lamps in a disturbing sort of way, they drew the curtains and had tea around the table. They pushed Riri’s books and belongings to one side and spread a cross-stitched tablecloth. Riri had hot chocolate, a croissant left from breakfast and warmed in the oven….”

And now, Urban Sketchers:


The above drawing – by Cathy Gatland – is from the website, Urban Sketchers. Urban Sketchers is one of the most interesting sites I have encountered this year. It’s a group blog for people who draw, and they draw, charmingly, what they see: The city life around them! It’s dizzying, the talent on display.

Do you ever feel like this?

Fellow, sometime-and-in-some-fashion, academics or others dabbling in paper writing?

Dixon looked out of the window at the fields wheeling past, bright green after a wet April. It wasn’t the double-exposure effect of the last half-minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him, for such incidents formed the staple material of Welch colloquies; it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. ‘Let’s see,’ he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: ‘oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485…’

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis.

I never tire of this book – it’s one of my favorites – even as I pretty much dislike the main character and the object of his affection, the tepid and colorless Christine. What are your favorite campus, or academic, satires?

Update: David Foster and Jim Bennett, in the comments section, both voice the same thought I had on re-reading the above excerpt: an article on the economic impact of shipbuilding techniques sounds pretty darn interesting, actually. I think the scene says something about the main character, Dixon, and his lack of interest in the very topics he is meant to research and study. In short, his heart’s not in it. Either that or Kingsley Amis had zero interest in economics and the title struck him as the most vapid imaginable. Anyone know?

On the emotional nature of work and business

As a medical student during the early nineties, I used to ‘decompress’ by reading light-hearted fiction; warm, simple stories about normal human problems. No War and Peace for me. Too ambitious. At the time, I liked to read Maeve Binchy. You’ve probably seen her fiction displayed in bookstores. One story in particular, titled “Marble Arch”, about a young female entrepreneur, struck a chord. By a lot of unglamorous hard work, she’s learned to make a living selling hand-stitched handbags. Her family is nonplussed that she left a salaried position selling cosmetics to strike out on her own:

“Her mother had worked regularly and quietly in a restaurant. She said that her one ambition was that Sophie should never have a job which meant walking and standing, and dealing with dirty plates and difficult customers. She was happy when Sophie was selling nice, fresh, good-smelling oils and paints for people’s faces. She was worried when she seemed to become a person of no account sitting in a little stall shouting her wares to the public.”

It’s an attitude I heard growing up – where a nice safe credentialed job was lauded, while business was seen as mercurial and unsafe. Well, starting a small business is risky. The story continues:

Sophie sighed, thinking how little everyone around her knew about business…….Really she had made very little impression on anyone, with her own businesslike attitudes. Nobody realized that it wasn’t easy to be organized and disciplined and to make money. It took a lot of time, and worry, and ate into all those hours you could be sitting around and enjoying yourself. Nobody ever got drawn into her belief that people might be on this earth to work hard.”

Nobody ever got drawn into her belief that people might be on this earth to work hard.  Sounds like every lecture ever given to me – as a young person – by my parents. I think they were exasperated by my youthful ideas about work and life. I thought, I really thought, that everything should be sweet, easy and pleasant. Ah, that dangerous expectation: that work should always and everywhere be fulfilling, whatever that means.