Category Archives: Book Reviews

Rumpelstiltskin Reimagined: A Review of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver loosely follows the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin, reimagining the story of a young woman who (with the help of an otherworldly creature) spins straw into gold. However, while the source material clearly shines through the text and tugs on readers’ nostalgia for the Grimm brothers’ folktale, this tale offers a vastly different world, crafted in juxtaposition to the fantastical and utopian perception of fairy tale worlds. Miryem, this tale’s main protagonist, lives in a world of strife. She is an outsider in her own village, set apart and othered for her status as the local Jewish moneylender’s daughter. Immediately, then, Miryem flips the familiar story on its head, exploring the antisemitism within the European folklore tradition.

“The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard…Because that’s what the story is really about: getting out of paying your debts” (3).

A multi-perspective narrative, Spinning Silver primarily varies between Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter turned icily merciless moneylender herself; Wanda, a young woman whose father signed her away to work for Miryem’s family in recompence for his debts; and Irina, a duke’s daughter made enchantingly beautiful with adornments of magical Staryk gold. These three young women hold different worldviews, based on their disparate life experiences and social standing. However, each narrator’s perspective occurs in first person, thus assigning a stronger sense of agency and autonomy to these characters than a third person narrative would allow for, as well as connecting the reader more closely to the thoughts and actions of the protagonists.

Miryem performs the role of coldhearted moneylender, taking over from her father who could not achieve the same emotional detachment when collecting from the townsfolk. While Miryem’s cold mannerisms might put the reader off at first, the tale appeals to her family’s dire social and financial circumstances, as well as to her father’s empathy and his reluctance to collect debts given his family’s precarious position in the community. The townsfolk refuse to pay off their debts despite having ample wealth and demonize the moneylender due to his job as well as his Jewish heritage. Miryem recognizes the stereotypes—Jewish people as merciless and greedy, solely focused on their own self-interests—that the villagers place on her family. It is only after her mother’s grave illness that she decides to take an active role in the business, reclaiming the debts owed to them. Soon, as her mother’s health and the family’s living conditions improve, Miryem boasts of her near-magical ability to turn silver to gold, or, in other words, maneuvering herself from poverty to prosperity.

Beyond exploring the anti-Semitism Miryem faces, and her decision to reclaim her agency despite the village’s perceptions, Novik’s reimagining of fairy tales tropes allows for a more nuanced understanding of the various other social hierarchies and ideology that governs this world. Through Wanda’s peasant perspective, for example, Novik defamiliarizes these governing structures, likening them to magic. When Miryem teaches Wanda how to collect, count, and record money, an economic necessity to raise oneself out of poverty, Wanda adamantly thinks “she spoke as if it was ordinary, but I knew she was teaching me magic” (44). This process of rendering remarkably unfamiliar activities that readers likely take for granted allows the text to explore the nature of these ideologies that so often go unquestioned. By linguistically distorting and thereby estranging the reader from these practices, the text enables new perspectives on these social conventions. As Wanda learns to navigate her culture’s structures of power and privilege, readers can rediscover the power within their own simple acts of literacy and view them with the same wonder that she does. In this way, Novik heightens our awareness of truths ingrained within our own perception of the world.

Without giving away too much of the story, I want to emphasize how incredible this book is in terms of worldbuilding, plot, character development, and its connection to contemporary social and political issues (the novel was published in 2018). Spinning Silver has received much acclaim, having won the 2019 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and having been nominated for the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel. This fractured fairy tale seeks to subvert the anti-Semitic stereotypes omnipresent throughout the text’s world as well as our own, and makes use of cleverly reimagined fairy tale tropes, like the significance of promises with Fae creatures and the implication of naming. The text emphasizes ambiguity, rupturing binary thinking about moral right and wrong, allowing for nuanced layers behind each character’s actions and their underlying intentions. For example, as I mentioned above, Miryem only assumes the coldhearted moneylender persona to save her family. Due to the alienation that her family felt at the hands of their community, she, and the reader, become increasingly confident and aware that, despite her initial façade of mercilessness, Miryem protects those towards whom she holds affection and affinity. As she later states, “I didn’t have a country to do it for. I only had people” (377).

“All of a sudden everyone around you was the same as each other but not like you. And then I thought, but it was like that for Miryem already. It was like that for her all the time, in town” (303).

Whittled down to its core, Spinning Silver calls for young people marginalized in society to exercise their own agency and autonomy wherever possible. Like this beautifully intricate fairy tale world, our own world is deeply flawed. Although we may feel powerless, Novik calls us to act anyway, like Wanda who “had not known that [she] was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and [she] had done them. [She] had to do the work first, not knowing” (381).

Content warning: domestic abuse and antisemitism

Other Recommendations
This genre of fairy tale retellings has become quite popular, especially within Young Adult literature. While working to achieve different ends, and with vastly different worlds and characters, here is a brief collection of my recommendations to check out if you enjoyed Spinning Silver: A.G. Howard’s Splintered; Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark & Grimm­ series;

Gail Carson Levine’s Fairest; Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles; and Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles ­­series.

Ally Geoffray is a senior in English Literature and Professional Writing in the English Dept. at Purdue.

“Why You Read in the First Place:” A Review of Anne Bogel’s I’d Rather be Reading

Many of us have a love for reading. Whether or not we are fans of lengthy fiction novels, or short magazine articles in the likes of People, reading comes naturally to us, as either a hobby or something more—something we can build our life around. This is the way of the “reading life,” which author and blogger Anne Bogel knows well. She describes the “delights and dilemmas” of such a life in her essay collection I’d Rather be Reading (2018). As the creator of the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcast What Should I Read Next?, Bogel is an avid reader, with much to say about what to read and how to relish it. Her anecdotes and advice in I’d Rather be Reading are relatable to just about anyone who has ever listed reading as one of their favorite past times.

As someone who actively makes book lists for her followers, Bogel begins with one of the questions she is asked most often: “Can you recommend me a good book?” (11). It is both a simple and an incredibly difficult question. Good is subjective; what is a good book to one person may not be to another. When looking for a good book, we often want one that makes us feel, a book that enraptures us, if just for a few hours. Recommending such a book, however, is not easy. As Bogel says, “To hand you a great book, I don’t just need to know about books; I need to know you” (13). This theme runs through many of her anecdotes; “reading is personal” (14), and the books we read shape who we are. Living vicariously through the characters within them helps broaden our emotional horizons and prepares us for the future. We laugh and cry with these characters. The meaning and value they hold in our lives is irreplaceable. These books even change with us: “A good book when we return to it, will always have something new to say. It’s not the same book, and we’re not the same reader” (123). It is difficult, then, when we are asked to recommend a good book; we give these books meaning, and it is one of the best parts of reading.

The reading life, however, differs depending on the person, something Bogel validates through her assertion that there is no one right way to read.         It is often, she says, that people come to her to “confess their literary sins,” focusing on the differences between what they think their reading life should be, and what it is like (18). However, she makes a case against the word should: “Should is tangled up with guilt, frustration, and regret; we use it all the time, many of us to speak of the ways we wish we could be more, do more, or just be different” (62). She describes the word should as “bossy” (63) and “dangerous” (62). Should, in this case, attempts to get every reader to adhere to one way of reading, a singular way that does not exist. In literary spheres, it is commonly thought that, if one has not read what academia would identify as “the classics,” then one should be ashamed. I’d Rather be Reading, on the other hand, focuses on the subjectivity of the reading life. Bogel discusses the validity of those readers who barely read, those who only read the likes of Young Adult fiction, and those who do indeed love the “classics.” In reality, any book could be a “classic,” depending on who is discussing it.

Although reading can be quite personal, there is a social side to it as well. Bogel describes this dichotomy as such: “Reading is often viewed as a solitary act; that’s one of the reasons I love it, and it’s certainly my favorite escape and introvert coping strategy of choice. But reading is also a social act: readers love to connect over good books” (138). In fact, readers tend to create their own social spheres through the like of book clubs, where it is possible to befriend others with similar taste when it comes to reading. Such friends can eventually become “book twins” (111)—those who tend to enjoy the same books as you. These “twins” are good sources for book recommendations and discussion, and this sort of serendipity exists as a main facet of the social side of reading. Although reading may be personal and sharing your favorite books may be daunting, it is this same intimacy that helps create the social realm for readers. As Bogel says, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained—and I’ve found talking about books to be a reliable shortcut to getting to the good stuff with our fellow readers, to cutting to the heart of what matters” (138-39). Sharing the personal when it comes to books can increase your fellow reader friends, fand help you forge bonds through the power of books.

Although I’d Rather be Reading is an amalgamation of stories surrounding Bogel’s experiences as a reader, I’m sure that the stories found within it will connect with many people’s experiences. This book reminded me of how reading helped me make my closest friends back in middle school when all we wanted to do was talk about our favorite reads. It reminded me that it is not a problem that I have not read all the classics, or that I had a Twilight phase as a child—these are just the readers I have been, and there is no shame when it comes to the reading lives I have lived. Reading has let me live “thousands” of lives (51), and I’d Rather be Reading let me relive some of these experiences. As “a book that reminds you why you read in the first place,” (12), I’d Rather be Reading moved me out of my reading slump and made me want to pick up the next book on my to-read list, an experience I’d Rather be Reading looks to give to readers of all kinds.

Fayth Schutter is double majoring in Professional Writing and Mass Communication at Purdue University.

Station Eleven: “Survival is Insufficient”

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven begins with a modern world much like our own, filled with celebrities, paparazzi, and child actors as well as normal people just struggling to determine their place in life, hopping from one lackluster job to the next, until finally achieving an idea of what fulfillment might look like. But suddenly the familiar, handheld smartphones and the nightly theatrical performances of King Lear fall silent as a devastating outbreak of what the novel calls “Georgia flu” decimates the global population. Tracing the resulting chaos, and following a revolving set of characters, Station Eleven depicts groups of Midwestern residents (locals as well as those stranded in the aftermath of the pandemic) in their attempts to come to terms with what it has lost, figure out how to rebuild, and recover a sense of normalcy.

In Station Eleven, St. John Mandel depicts a post-apocalyptic world unlike many of her predecessors’ in that she focuses on a divide between before and after: how adults cope in comparison to their children, how the memories that only a few retain begin to slowly fade, how quickly any sense of normalcy disappears. And yet, it remains remarkably hopeful, with the Traveling Symphony’s (a small troupe of Shakespearean actors and musicians) tagline reminding the reader, “survival is insufficient” (119). Even in this ravaged world, art persists. The novel urges us to seek out beauty in the world. It exhorts us to not take modernity’s benefits, such as electricity or communication across oceans, for granted. For who’s to say that some pandemic won’t wipe away all trace of the technological wonders we forget to marvel at: “[N]o more internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken” (32). The novel’s lists poetically enumerate the familiar social exchanges rendered impossible in this dystopian future.

Frequent callbacks to the time before civilization’s collapse also provide relatable insights into our fractured relationship with the modern world. One such moment appears in a flashback scene between Arthur Leander, a famous stage actor, and Clark, one of his old friends. The two meet in a restaurant, large and dimly lit. Almost immediately, Clark notices the disconnect that had grown between himself and his friend. As they catch up, Clark notices the way Arthur expresses himself, repeating phrases from recent magazine profiles, broadly emphasizing his exploits through loose, animated gestures. He is struck by “the terrible gulf of years between eighteen and fifty,” as he recognizes that “Arthur wasn’t having dinner with a friend…so much as having dinner with an audience” (112). Through subtle scenes such as this, St. John Mandel navigates the blurry space between performance and reality, revealing what can happen to friendships in a celebrity-obsessed, digital culture mediated by omnipresent camera phones. St. John Mandel also critiques modern culture when, in another scene from Clark’s life before the apocalypse, he sees himself in colleague’s description of “high functioning sleepwalkers” who “‘think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction’” (163). Indeed, she questions the very nature of what we call happiness, leaving the answer ambiguous at best—up for audience interpretation and contemplation long after the 333 pages have been read.

Such open-ended questions only add to the intrigue of the novel, especially as the reader notices the delicate balance and meshing of high culture and pop culture references in the text. Kirsten, a pivotal character, performs Shakespeare as a member of the Traveling Symphony, and yet “‘her favorite line of text is from Star Trek’” (120). Kirsten was a child actress when the world collapsed She now travels along Lake Michigan, performing to audiences in rapture at entertainment recalling better days. In fact, the significance of art is a pervasive thread throughout the text; in the time after the pandemic, characters struggling to come to grips with all they have lost begin to memorialize artifacts in a “museum of civilization,” regardless of whether or not these remnants help with their survival. Instead of focusing on mere existence, then, the characters ponder what it means to be human, and wonder whether art and culture are essential to human identity. The Traveling Symphony, for instance, sometimes “thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night,” but then the difficulties of collapsed civilization return, and “it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it” (119). This grappling between nostalgia for a past world and embrace of a new order structures the novel, as its chapters move forward and back in time; still, its plot progression depicts characters’ reinvigorated attempts to retain that past while adapting to current necessities.

For fans of post-apocalyptic, dystopian fiction, Station Eleven provides a fresh take on the genre. The diverse cast of characters the story develops and then intertwines allows readers to relate and empathize with a broad spectrum of experiences, regrets, and ideals. Kirsten is one such character, and, throughout the novel, she carries with her a reminder of the beauty of the past world: a scrap of paper, a scene from a comic called Station Eleven, the novel’s own namesake. Though she only holds one page of this fragmented text, it captures her own longing, its dialogue poignantly stating “‘we long only to go home…We dream of sunlight, we dream of walking on earth…We have been lost for so long…We long only for the world we were born into’” (302). Kirsten, like the rest of the characters, confronts her own legacy, the narrative telling us, “first we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered” (187). Throughout the novel, the lines between performance and life blur, but though these characters have been forced to trudge their way through a tarnished world, they retain their ability to find and create beauty independent of the catastrophic event that seeks to define them.

Ally Geoffray is a junior majoring in English Literature and Professional Writing at Purdue.

 

Modernizing an Ancient Epic – with Ally Geoffray

Purdue’s English Department has created a new tradition involving faculty, students, and the local community. Each year, it selects a book to highlight as its “Big Read.” This year’s book is Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, which unflinchingly depicts its protagonist’s ambiguous nature as both victim of fate and perpetrator of heinous deeds. Looking beyond the absolutely gorgeous white and blue, gilt-lettered cover, which features the three muses in glittering gold, this new translation of the classic epic proves itself a valuable contribution to an inundated market for this particular Greek legend of Odysseus’s homecoming after the Trojan War.

First and foremost, Emily Wilson rejects our stylistic assumptions about Homeric epic, the common belief that it must be rhetorically elevated and ostentatious, full of old-fashioned diction. She argues that, “of course, the English of the nineteenth or early twentieth century,” the kind of language we most closely associate with the poem, “is no closer to Homeric Greek than the language of today” (Wilson, 87). Similarly, while she invokes the original qualities of the epic by emphasizing its oral form through the use of repetition as a mnemonic device, she also provides an originality that many translations forgo. For instance, she introduces ingenious permutations for the stock phrases the poem employs, especially through multifarious epithets like “wily Odysseus, the lord of lies” (Wilson, 240). By using accessible language that allows for more a contemporary understanding, Wilson’s translation invites attention, providing opportunities for substantial interaction between the audience and the text, a feat that seems remarkably similar to the overarching intent of the Big Read program.

Here is a piece of advice when acquainting oneself with this edition: do not skip the introduction! Although many readers have been exposed to some knowledge of this epic’s rich history, this nearly 80-page introduction includes a variety of intriguing information about topics such as the complex character of Odysseus, further background into the mystery of Homer, and actual geographic locations correlating to the different stops that Odysseus makes on his voyage homeward. It also includes a deeper look into ancient Greek gender roles and what it means to be a woman within this world—particularly some one of Penelope’s stature in contrast to women in other levels of the social hierarchy, such as the goddess Calypso or the slave women (who function as housekeepers, and as prizes to be looted when ransacking villages or during battle).

One of my favorite scenes, found in Book 5, focuses on Odysseus’s stalled voyage home, as he sits, forlornly staring out to sea, trapped on Calypso’s island with little hope of return. He desires recognition from his family and the people of Ithaca for his numerous exploits and death-defying adventures; he needs this acknowledgement in order to maintain his powerful position within society. Rather than accept a peaceful and possibly eternal life marooned on Calypso’s island, then, our protagonist longs to return home to his wife, Penelope. Still, he must remain cautious in how he portrays this yearning, especially since he must avoid provoking the goddess Calypso with whom he currently resides. In this way, he displays his central quality, metis. Emily Wilson translates this trait, one highly valued within Greek culture, as “‘cunning,’ ‘skill,’ ‘scheming,’ or purpose’” (Wilson, 36). It aptly encapsulates Odysseus’ skillful maneuvers in his responses to Calypso, his making sure to acknowledge and emphasize her beauty as superior to his wife’s, despite his urge to leave her. He manipulates the situation adroitly, portraying himself as “a man whose mind was like the gods, who had endured many heartbreaking losses, and the pain of war and shipwreck” (Wilson, 319).

Another memorable scene involves Odysseus’s interaction with Polyphemus, the cyclops child of Poseidon. After arriving on the island, the ship’s crew admires the welcoming landscape, proclaiming that “there is flat land for plowing, and abundant crops would grow in the autumn; there is richness underground” (Wilson, 244). This rhapsodizing abruptly ends, however, as they wander into Polyphemus’s cave, the home of a cyclops who displays “no shame at eating [his] own guests” (Wilson, 255)! In perhaps Odysseus’s most cunning exploit within The Odyssey, this “master of plots and plans” cajoles Polyphemus into a state of inebriation only to drive an olive spear into his captor’s eye (Wilson, 240). The descriptions that Wilson employs here are gruesomely vivid, as she describes how “[Polyphemus’s] blood poured out around the stake, and blazing fire sizzled his lids and brows, and fried the roots” (Wilson, 252). Although Odysseus’s own hubris unravels his meticulous plot when he proclaims his true name to the blinded cyclops, the critical wound he delivers to Polyphemus’s only eye still serves as the monster’s punishment for severely perverting Grecian hospitality norms.

To be sure, an integral and recurring element throughout The Odyssey is the ancient Greek custom of xenia, “a word that means both ‘hospitality’ and ‘friendship’” (Wilson, 23). It involves generously welcoming of strangers into one’s home, providing them with a place of safety, a night’s rest, and a meal before any probing questions. Odysseus benefits from this custom frequently, with people choosing “to be kind to [him]… not for [his] stories, but in fear of Zeus, the god of strangers, and because [they] feel pity for [him]” (Wilson, 344). To modern day readers, the concept of inviting strangers, random wanderers, into one’s house might seem peculiar and even dangerous, but, in The Odyssey, this custom is expected and even necessary, or else the unwelcoming host may face divine punishment. Ultimately, then, the poem explores the Greeks’ responsibilities to and fears of welcoming the unfamiliar into their homes, their culture, and their personal experiences. Throughout her translation, Wilson invites the audience to listen and to think about xenia in their own lives. In today’s world—where borders and differences seem to define relationships among individuals—The Odyssey encourages us to interact with those of different backgrounds, accepting them as they are while seeking mutual understanding. Ultimately, then, by offering a nuanced view of the complicated hero, Odysseus, and also by discouraging fear of the perceived Other, Emily Wilson manages to reconstruct The Odyssey as “a text that allows us to explore our desire for power and permanence in a world of imagination, while also showing us the darker side of these deep human dreams, hopes, and fears” (Wilson, 74).

Ally Geoffray is a junior in English Literature and Professional Writing at Purdue University.

“The underground railroad” by colson whitehead

Each year, the English Department presents its Big Read: a common read program designed to connect Purdue’s campus to the greater Lafayette area. Our book selection for 2018-2019 was Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad (2016). The Big Read came to a close with the department’s annual Literary Awards, where Whitehead was the keynote speaker. His visit also included a reading from The Underground Railroad and a book signing.

Set in antebellum America, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a southern plantation. Born and raised into U.S. slavery (the novel also includes a glimpse into Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who was forcibly taken out of Africa and sold in America, and her mother Mabel), Cora is left an outcast after her mother runs off without her. A fellow slave named Caesar approaches Cora with an offer to flee, but she is reluctant to go with him; once conditions on the plantation worsen, however, Cora agrees.

What follows is an unconventional coming of age story, part slave narrative, part historical fiction, part magical realism, in which Whitehead transforms the metaphorical Underground Railroad of our historical memory into an actual mode of transportation. Secret tracks buried beneath the ground connect cities as “stops” along the way, while conductors like Martin, whom Cora en-counters in North Carolina, operate the train and help runaway slaves on their way to freedom.

The Big Read organizes several community events and activities, including book discussions open to the public, to foster connections between campus’ and the community’s literati. Recently, the West Lafayette Public Library was host to one such gathering of students and local residents. The review that follows is the result of an afternoon spent delving into the pages of Whitehead’s novel. While not everyone enjoyed the text, we all appreciated the beauty of Whitehead’s writing, and the story’s social significance.

Colson Whitehead talked with Dr. Dixon at our annual Literary Awards
Colson Whitehead talked with Dr. Dixon at our annual Literary Awards

The Underground Railroad is written in the third person, unlike other novels featuring enslaved female protagonists, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Participants worried that this narrative distance might inhibit some readers from identifying strongly with the novel’s protagonist. However, Whitehead turns this narrative pitfall into success in the presentation of his minor characters. Our group was impressed by the dynamism and roundedness of The Underground Railroad’s supporting cast—especially its villain Ridgeway. While it is easy to dismiss the slave catcher as immoral, the unbiased third person narration—plus the inclusion of a chapter from his point of view—results in a surprisingly and uncomfortably relatable character.

This is what Whitehead’s novel does best: It forces the reader to confront the gray area in what they thought was black and white—both historically and in contemporary society. Of course the slave catcher is evil, and, certainly, the brutal violence of Ridgeway and his associates bear this out. But Ridgeway is much more terrifying because we understand who he is. He, like us, has a moral code. We can disagree with that code, find it despicable, but the novel’s ambiguous treatment of Ridgeway’s fate suggests to the reader that the Ridge-ways of the world are not confined to history—they prowl among us today.

Likewise, The Underground Railroad’s America demands comparison with ours. In its opening pages, the novel shows us America through Ajarry’s eyes: “In America the quirk was that people were things… If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities” (p. 7). This first glimpse prompted our group to wonder if the issues dealt with in the novel still affected us today, to a resounding yes. Several people drew comparisons between the slave catching scenes and the racial injustices of the 1960s and even now.

What generated the most conversation was the novel’s titular feature. In what some considered a brilliant innovation, Whitehead transformed the historical Underground Railroad—a network of abolitionists and sympathizers that ferried and sheltered runaway slaves, famously associated with Harriet Tubman—into an actual railway. This blurs the genre of the novel. Is it historical fiction? Magical realism? The result is somewhere in the middle, with the train structuring the text’s episodic nature; each chapter is like a station, and the travel motif also governs the nonlinear time frame. While Cora’s story does not progress in a sequential order, the train contextualizes the resulting disjointedness of time and space.

Our discussion ended with us considering the news that The Underground Railroad will be adapted into a television series. We were all pleased that the story could be seen on the small screen. Several people likened the possible adaptation to Roots, another slave narrative transformed into a generation-defining miniseries in the 1970s. They believed The Underground Railroad had the potential to be as culturally important in this medium.

Despite our excitement, however, we had concerns. Would the series sanitize the violence of Cora’s experience? How would it depict the Underground Railroad? Is it possible that those unfamiliar with history would take this more fantastic of version of the network as fact? On the flipside, could its magical elements be taken too far in an effort to attract viewers? The novel’s hopeful, open ending leaves space for continuing the story, and we discussed the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as an example. We don’t know if Whitehead is involved in the adaptation, but we hope the television series is faithful to what made The Underground Railroad so successful: its captivating story.

Amanda Leary is a Literature PhD Student in the English Dept. at Purdue.

You can Do Anything

Studying the liberal arts in a STEM world can often prompt the same questions over and over again: What are you going to do with that degree? Do you want to teach? How are you going to make money? Is your degree practical? George Anders’ book, You Can Do Anything (2017), answers these questions. It uses empirical data and multiple interviews with successful liberal arts graduates to argue that the “job market is quietly creating thousands of openings a week for people who can bring a humanist’s grace to our rapidly evolving high-tech future” (4).

The audience for this book is liberal arts majors, but it also aims at their families. Parents influence their children’s decision making, and, too often, their response to wanting to pursue a liberal arts path is concern or even opposition. Parents generally want what is best for their children, but this usually comes in the form of encouraging them to seek economic stability, and to pursue practical majors deemed most likely to confer it. In the twenty-first-century economy, however, mobility may be even more important than stability. Anders uses his knowledge of job market trends to assuage readers that they have what it takes to succeed at a time when technology is taking over.

            Part one of Anders’ book focuses on the strengths liberal arts graduates bring to the job market. Common wisdom has it that liberal arts seekers are jack-of-all trades but also masters of none. Students learn a little about history, a little about science, a little about everything. As Anders tell us: “A generation ago…college officials could joke that a liberal arts education ‘trains you for nothing but prepares you for everything.’ Today, you want to be brilliantly prepared and properly trained too” (21). But, as he also shows, liberal arts students are “properly trained,” just not in the conventional ways one might expect from a linear job path. While students and their parents obsess about jobs with high-paying starting salaries and very specific vocational skill sets, liberal arts students have vast room to grow and, in time, often end up exceeding their counterparts: “Fixating on starting salaries blinds us to the value of mobility… your liberal arts degree is likely to propel you ahead of many classmates with practical majors who thought they had seized an unbeatable lead at age twenty-two” (55-56).

"While students and their parents obsess about jobs with high-paying starting salaries and very specific vocational skill sets, liberal arts students have vast room to grow and, in time, often end up exceeding their counterparts."

            It sounds chaotic; in career development, as in life, there are few direct paths from point A to point B. While it may sound daunting, this model can be an asset to companies, and to newly graduated liberal arts majors looking to get hired. Why? Because those students are adaptable. Students often change majors several times in college, and they will similarly move through several jobs in a lifetime. This ability to accept change head on and face it with calm composure is not what Anders would call a “soft skill” (although that is the term most often used). Instead, he prefers the term “power skills” (43). Other power skills include: a “willingness… to tackle uncharted areas,” “finding insights,” “choosing the right approach,” “reading the room,” and “inspiring others” (32). Those who master power skills ultimately know how people work in and out of a professional setting.

This section of the book is all about embracing an explorer’s mindset. Anders tells the reader, “If your interviewer has even the haziest familiarity with the movie 300, you’re ready to talk about what it’s like to stand at a narrow pass, imagining that it’s 480 B.C., the enemy is massing—and you’ve got an ax” (33). He means that liberal arts students are used to not having the upper hand, but they are used to bravely fighting hardship and making-do with the tools at hand in any given situation.

            Parts two and three of the book address the realities of getting a degree in liberal arts. This section is great for students questioning their chances of upward mobility by pursuing a non-STEM field. On page 153, there are three charts that display typical starting salaries, midcareer salaries, and lifetime salaries in various fields. From this data, we see that liberal arts majors can make upwards of 3 to 5 million dollars in a lifetime, close to and in some instances exceeding the averages of other, more vocational or technology-based careers. Money tends to affect people’s decision making when it comes to college degrees, but starting salaries don’t determine the success of liberal arts majors. When practical majors and careers top out, liberal arts degree holders can soar. They may not make the same starting salary as engineers or doctors, but this doesn’t mean that these majors aren’t worth it or aren’t important. In a culture of instant gratification, patience is key.

"Liberal arts majors can make upwards of 3 to 5 million dollars in a lifetime, close to and in some instances exceeding the averages of other, more vocational or technology-based careers."

            One anecdote that illustrates this imperative is the story of Kaori Freda, a recent Reed College graduate. Her parents, like many adults, were skeptical about what she was going to do after college. It didn’t help when she moved to Japan and then to a remote island in the Pacific to learn more about herself, her heritage, and her potential. Yet, it was because of, and not despite, this detour that she ended up landing a “great job” with Nike. Thanks to her “overseas search for personal meaning” (204), Kaori was able to figure out what she wanted to do and relate her experiences to potential employers in a way that advocated for the skills they conferred. In other words, Kaori took a risk and she thrived.

Nowadays, students are so often told that the point of college is finding a high paying job right after graduation that they tend to forget that it is okay to explore. “There’s a bit of Kaori Freda in all of us,” Anders writes, “When you collect your diploma, you don’t yet know what kind of jobs you do best, what type of work satisfies you the most, or where the best opportunities reside. You need to experiment…No matter what your parents tell you, the great advantage of a college education isn’t long-term stability; it’s flexibility” (207). The explorer’s spirit can help us achieve success; we just have to be willing to gain a new perspective, to find adventure in everything from everyday activities to life changing experiences.

"...liberal arts majors aren’t what modern culture makes them out to be. They are highly skilled, show potential for great leadership, and are equipped to withstand the innovations of automation."

Ultimately, what readers should take away from this book is that liberal arts majors aren’t what modern culture makes them out to be. They are highly skilled, show potential for great leadership, and are equipped to withstand the innovations of automation. Whatever their choice of major, liberal arts students can hold their own amongst accountants and engineers; they will show the working world what they are made of. Just remember: “Rapid, disruptive change doesn’t ruin your prospects: it can actually play to your advantage” (9).

Georgia’s “Snacks for the Road” (Memorable Quotes):

  •  “In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” (cited on pg. 16).
  • “Hundreds of psychological studies have found that people with a high level of what’s called ‘openness to new experiences’ fare somewhat better in school and, by extension, later life than those who have lower levels of it. Our world needs people who color outside the lines” (21).
  • “Pearlstein asked how many of his twenty-four students had chosen to major in a field such as history, English, or philosophy. The answer: only one. The explanation from half a dozen others: ‘My parents wouldn’t let me’” (28).
  • “Success isn’t a straight line…you will need to keep improvising your future” (54).
  • “It’s time to help meandering regain its good name” (56).
  • “42 percent of all hires happen without any trace of a formal job posting in the previous month” (82).
  • “We’d much rather hire a passionate candidate with potential than an uninspired candidate with a sparkling resume” (cited on pg. 111).
  • “It is impossible to automate the highly nuanced feat of changing people’s minds” (134).
  • “You can teach people to code, but you can’t teach people to learn” (cited on pg. 199).
  • “Every leadership question is really about communications. And every communications question is actually a leadership question in disguise” (276).

Georgia Green is a major in English Literature and a minor in Creative Writing.

The Big Read: The Underground Railroad

Looking for a good book? The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has something for everyone. Rich in history, suspense, and emotion, the compelling characters will draw you into the surreal world of fiction even while the true-to-life horrors make you feel like you are caught in a nightmare. Read with friends and discuss your thoughts as you journey with Cora to freedom from the slavery of the deep South.