A few weeks into the second semester of college, my primary care physician grabbed a handful of Paxil vacuum packs and told me to take one each night between dinner and bedtime. Eight o’clock was a good target.
I had come to her complaining of chest and stomach pains, and trouble digesting food. When my doctor told me it was stress, I didn’t believe her — possibly because my mother was in the room at the time, and there was nothing stressful in my life that I was willing to discuss in front of her. Instead, I said that I didn’t really like the idea of mood-altering drugs, which was true. I remember looking down at the silver plastic rectangles and fearing the person I would suddenly be when I started cutting them open and swallowing the little lacquered circles inside.
Of course, I was more afraid of the person I already was — fragile, sleepless, irritable, unfocused, easily startled — than of the person I would become with an extra five milligrams of paroxetine selectively inhibiting my serotonin reuptake. While my classmates had gained their freshman fifteen, I’d lost mine, despite eating all the same calories. A sharp pain behind my left third rib kept me awake at night and woke me up early in the morning. Afternoons, after class, I would wander between different study carrels in the library: maybe if I had a window to look out I would calm down enough to read; maybe if there wasn’t a window nearby I wouldn’t be so distracted.
My doctor waited out my trepidation and I left with the vacuum packs. The following Monday, back on campus, I began the forty-two-day experiment. This is what happened: I slept. From about midnight to about eight, every night. For some of you, this schedule sounds like normal life, give or take an hour on the start time. For those who can more directly relate, it probably sounds like heaven: just as fluffy, as inherently redemptive, as distant.
What my doctor understood which I did not: I needed a practical solution. My notion that my own level of anxiety was not the result of an ailment but rather the result of poor life-management may very well have been correct — and, really, it seems at least insensitive (not to mention empirically fishy) to compare my passing condition to a chronic disease. But that didn’t mean I was in any shape to figure out which life decisions had brought me there, or how to alter them. Once I could get up in the morning feeling something besides exhaustion and anger, once I could eat painlessly and read more than four or five pages at a time, I could see the real problem. It was economics.
I don’t mean the giant abstraction of how to best allocate the world’s resources while respecting the rights of individuals. I mean the class. Possibly the easiest class I took in college. In other classes, I sat in the second row and raised my hand too often, then went to office hours. In Econ 120, I sat in the back and wrote poetry in my notebook. Once (the only time in my now-nineteen-year school career) I fell asleep. I skipped the study sessions. I did about half of the reading. I started each homework assignment ten minutes before the class started. Sometimes I would just go to the classroom and do it there. I turned in all the tests early, having already checked my answers. For fifty minutes from 3:20 to 4:10 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I was Will fucking Hunting.
And — although I didn’t understand until I could look with chemically assisted clarity — this was the class that had me crying into my pillow at three in the morning because I’d heard of people crying themselves to sleep and I was out of other ideas.
I’d entered college, like many, on the route to law school. But not just any law school, and not just any law: I was going to be a corporate lawyer. I thought the phrase “private counsel” was rich and full of smoky complexities, like high-end coffee. I intended to crack the Ivy League — which my undergraduate applications had failed to crack — and have an office very high off the ground, with lots of glass. I would fly to London three times a year, because bespoke suits (I’d read) generally require three fittings. None of this is hyperbole. I was eighteen years old and I thought this, and it seemed like a reasonable thing to think.
I’d already interned for a law office by that point, and I entered DePauw as a member of their Management Fellows honors program, a curricular/extracurricular mix “established in 1980 to connect students interested in business and management with the best of a liberal arts education and real-world experience.” As a Management Fellow, I attended a series of workshops and lectures and would, during my third year, spend a semester in a highly structured internship, probably at a business with alumni connections. In terms of coursework, the classes required for the program basically ensured that each student completed an Economics major. DePauw did not have a business major. “Business majors go into middle management,” the director of the program liked to say, “while Economics majors go into upper management.”
And so I went to Econ 120. Once a week or so, I attend a MoFo (yep, that’s what we called ourselves) event, usually having spent some time in the interim doing group work with other MoFos to prepare for a presentation of some kind. My group-mates would recognize me from Econ 120 and sometimes ask if I wanted to join their study group, and I would decline with no small amount of internal (I thought) (I hope) contempt and instead go to the library and read Yeats by myself, one poem at a time, changing seats often. At the next MoFo meeting, they would talk about the parties they’d seen each other at over the weekend, and I would resent them for not having invited me. At the end of the fall semester I brought home an A in Econ 120, and my mother told me she was taking me to the doctor.
On the tenth night of the forty-two day experiment, I took one pill at 8:10 PM. At 9 PM, some girls from the other side of the floor came over and said they were going to watch The Shining and asked if we wanted to watch it, too. I was feeling very agreeable, so I said sure. This is how I know Paxil works: when Jack Nicholson spun out and shoved his ax into Scatman Crothers’s chest, I had no physical reaction of any kind: no twitch, no gasp, no jump, no change in heart rate. Instead, I simply thought to myself, “Huh. That’s neat.” That was the actual content of my internal monologue.
The next evening, I went to the scheduled MoFo event and understood very thoroughly that I did not want to be there at all. I had no interest whatever in the proceedings. I didn’t want to take any more Econ classes. I didn’t want to hang out with any of the people there, and I didn’t want any of the things they wanted — and spending all my time with them had left me friendless and lonely. I wanted to go to the library and read a book and, when I was finished with that book, read another one. I wanted to hang out with the book-reading people, the people who liked being in the library as much as I did. And I didn’t want to do any more group presentations. I wanted to write.
I went back to my dorm room and borrowed my roommate’s computer (I didn’t have a computer at the time, although my parents had offered to get me one as a graduation present at the end of high school, because the process of choosing a computer stressed me out too much) and wrote an email to the director of the Management Fellows program stating my withdrawal. Then I went out into the common area and played Mario Kart 64 with the other people in my dorm. Then I went to sleep, and slept until morning.
I asked my creative writing professor to be my advisor and declared a creative writing major, and I spent more time with the creative writing people. We traded poems outside of class, and scribbled on them, and talked about them in the library café. They invited me over to watch The Chipmunk Adventure, and we gasped together in fascinated horror at the unbridled sexuality of the Chipettes (it starts around 1:20, if you’re impatient). Eventually I told my parents about my academic changes, and they asked me if I was sure, and I said yes, and they said okay. Then the forty-two days were up and I was out of Paxil, and I was still okay.
Summer came and I went home and I had to explain to each individual person who’d known me the year before that no, I’d switched off the business law track and into creative writing. I understood before they said anything that creative writing — and especially poetry — was impractical, but they always said something. “What are you going to do with that?” people would ask, as though they’d spotted me on the public green with a caged angry possum, or a firearm. I settled on “marketing” as an answer, although I didn’t care about marketing at all, except for Budweiser’s Real Men of Genius campaign. But I didn’t really believe that I needed an answer, and I’m still not sure that I do.
What “impractical” means, in this context, is “incrementally less appealing to abstracted hiring managers who don’t know you,” or, perhaps, “demographically trending toward fewer available positions and/or lower salaries than majors in STEM fields.” I feel it is important to specify this, because people often seem to use the term “impractical” as though referring to some objective impracticality — some massive and central truth, like the Earth’s molten core — which quality inheres in areas of study that don’t involve advanced professional degrees. And all of us non-MBA, non-MD, non-JD people just internalize it, and breezily joke about working at Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. “Oh, my cousin tried to get a job at Barnes and Noble,” the people respond, “and they said they get so many applicants it’s basically impossible.”
But there is no such thing as objective impracticality; practicality is necessarily relative. “Impractical for what?” one must ask, in order for the term to make sense. Going to medical school is a deeply impractical way of earning a Juris Doctorate, for example. A creative writing degree is impractical for maximizing one’s statistical chances of high-paying employment, relative to the early twenty-first century American spread.
But what if I don’t care as much about maximizing my statistical chances of high-paying employment relative to the early twenty-first century American spread? What if, when I did care about that, I was lonely and sad to the point of damaging my health? Then what is practical?
It took a few years, but I came to care more about incremental advantages with unknown hiring managers. In the sparkling 2006 economy, I’d landed a job within a month of graduation. Five years later I graduated again, this time with a Master’s of Fine Arts in Poetry, and things were a little different.
This time it took nine months, during which interval I burned through the hospitality of multiple close friends, erased my savings, maxed out my credit, and tested dearly those who had chosen to stand by me and offer emotional support throughout.
And I often wondered at the decisions that had brought me to that place. By choosing what I had considered the right path for me, I’d unknowingly condemned myself to nine months of financial damage and anxiety and deep personal insecurity. I slept poorly and woke angry. I skipped meals. I went to the library, where I wanted to shift around from seat to seat but couldn’t, because the seats were all taken — with other unemployed people who also needed a free place to sit with internet access in order to send out all those applications; with children and their math tutors; with adults and their English tutors. Toward the end, I could get an application out in about an hour (unless it was one of those devious and cruel systems that required I manually fill in all the information already on my résumé) with a well-crafted cover letter, if I was on my game.
But I was never on my game. I was tired from lack of sleep and distracted by the pain behind my rib. I was lonely. I found it hard to focus. One friend recommended therapy, while I just thought back to Paxil (neither was actually available, of course) because I recognized these symptoms. This ferocious, debilitating anxiety — this persistent crisis mode — is what I would have felt every day for the previous nine years if I’d stayed on the MoFo track.
Now I am gainfully employed in a job I like very much: I write most of the day for an institution whose mission I care deeply about. I’m paid a good wage for this job, and I work non-exploitative hours, and I get really nice benefits. I usually wear a tie. I go home at night feeling good about what I just did. I can afford to shop at J.Crew and, if I am careful, even, sometimes, Brooks Brothers. I have a six-pack of Goose Island beer in my fridge, and I drank one a little while ago, as I was writing the first section.
On the bus ride home from work, I see posters for Rahm’s Readers, a children’s program through Chicago Public Libraries, and it makes me angry because Rahm cut funding to the library system in his most recent budget proposal (a budget proposal that passed the fifty-member city council unanimously, as though people agree on budget proposals). Our cultural neighbors across the Atlantic are cutting library funding, too, and that makes Zadie Smith angry.
Explanations for this sort of thing are always given in triage terms; budget-makers, it seems, have only critical patients in the ward. But there is room in the budget for large tax-incentive packages, and there is room for NATO conferences and their attendant security forces. I had to wonder, standing next to the floor-to-ceiling windows of our lunch room and looking down at the small, machine-gun-equipped boats patrolling the Chicago River a hundred and fifty feet below me, whether those were really efficient, or practical. Whether the LRAD trucks that the police rolled up but never used against the protesters — because nothing going on that remotely required crowd-control weaponry — were really efficient, or practical. Practical for what?
And why, over and over again, we see our leaders choosing to fund these things and shrink or close libraries, in the name of necessity. Why security spending gets the “objectively practical” tag. Buildings full of books and computers, staffed by people who know how to navigate both, are extremely practical and extremely efficient at what they do, and the things they do are important things: providing public work space for people who need but cannot afford work space; providing access to education at a time when education is rightfully considered the single most important aspect to economic success, both personally and nationally (and at a time when education costs are generally rising faster than the rest of the economy can match); maintaining an available, searchable, browseable archive and culture base, so we can avoid past mistakes and better understand the humanity of those around us.
These are not trivial or frivolous goals. This is not impractical. There is no need for library defenders to cede the moral or even numerical high ground to the emergency-allocation rhetoric of budget cuts — which rhetoric has stayed steady for decades, which maybe means it’s not really that sort of emergency after all. If we do have to cut something (and I concede that we probably do), let’s cut something less practical.
Libraries are some of the most efficient organizations in existence (if you really think businesses are our most efficient institutions, you probably don’t know anyone with an expense account). They provide a great many time- and effort-intensive services for very little money, and have for quite a while. If there are serious arguments to be made against the safekeeping of books, against the maintenance of public spaces, let’s hear them — but let’s not accept at face value this vague notion that libraries are impractical, an excess, a luxury.
Instead, let’s ask serious questions about our goals, and thus about the things that are practical for attaining them. We want people to be employed in fields that involve their passions and skills, because, like practicality, employment is not an objective standard: it is not, in and of itself, the good life. We want people to live good lives. We want people to be healthy. We want to make sure that unemployed people have access to the resources necessary to effectively seek employment. It is impractical for me to try to make my living as a corporate lawyer; it is impractical to try to solve a wide-scale workforce problem by cutting public access to education and infrastructure.
But this zone of practicality — practicality for job-seeking — is just one facet of the practicality of libraries, one way in which they are pragmatically useful. One way in which they are worth funding, in which they provide returns on investment (which are not the same thing). Cutting library funding because it is possible by doing so to get all the zeros to line up is practical only in the sense that it completes the exercise; it would be like regarding that A in Econ 120 as a reason to stay.