What We Wish We’d Known in College

Keith Gessen of n+1 magazine spoke at Scripps / Claremont a few weeks ago. n+1 a relatively new literary journal and political magazine started by a bunch of 30-something intellectuals. Here’s A.O. Scott’s fantastic profile from awhile back of the editors and their venture.

They give freshmen in college a free copy of their pamphlet "What We Should Have Known," a transcript of eleven editors discussing what they wish they’d known in college, specifically about books. What books should they have read, what should they have read earlier, what should they have not read, etc. It’s interesting if a bit esoteric — I hadn’t heard of most of the philosophers and authors they talk about — but there are some good nuggets which I excerpt below.

On advice to an 18 year-old:

Caleb Crain: If I were speaking to an 18 year-old, I’d say, "Don’t worry. Don’t be precocious." But the flip side of that is, this is the only life you’ll get, and it won’t come again. So, I don’t think you should be precocious, and I don’t think you should beat yourself up for not having published a book at the age of 28, but I think that a young person should keep a journal, and read seriously, and, you know, think about everything that happens.

On becoming an intellectual, in the postscript by Keith Gessen, love the last sentence:

I am certain that the most valuable parts of these talks lie beyond those debates. They are the moments when the panelists reveal their deep uncertainty — Meghan Falvey walking in a mist of abstraction on the way to her dorm from Phenomenology, Existentialism, and something else with a P — and how each of them has struggled to read and think their way out of that uncertainty. It turns out that in order to become an intellectual, you must first become a pseudo-intellectual. But to have the courage, in the meantime, of your uncertainty — to remain open to things, and serious about them — would be a pretty good way to go through college, and not just college.

One of the more surprising parts of the transcript was when most announced they shouldn’t have gone to college, the very place where they were exposed to most of the books they had been discussing:

Ilya Bernstein: I do have one regret. I regret having gone to college!

Rebecca Curtis: Me too!

Siddhartha Deb: I do too. I think it’s a waste.

Mark Grief: It would be much better if you were released into the world when you were 18, and instead you’re kept in this juvenile  detention for a further four years, in which you’re equipped with things which, frankly, you’d be able to understand much better later —

Ilya Bernstein: I would have done much more if I’d been out of college.

Mark Greif: And to have an entire nation of people going to college, right? That’s ridiculous.

Siddhartha Deb: I think we should go straight to work.

Ilya Bernstein: It was actually like a hiatus in my life. I did stuff before college and I did stuff after college, but what the hell did I do in college?

Benjamin Kunkel: It’s summer camp.

Ilya Bernstein: Four years of summer camp.

Mark Greif: It’s like being buried alive, or something, right?

Ilya Bernstein: But you enjoy it.

Mark Greif: Of course, but you come back from the dead, and you start the chronology over again…It’s life before and after Christ…before and after college. And it shouldn’t be like that.

On the definition of an essayist:

Mark Greif: Essayist! That’s interesting. You know, you go through life not really knowing who you are, and one day, somebody calls you an essayist. Out of all the pathetic categories that I read growing up, I knew there was no bigger joke than an essayist. Someone who couldn’t write something long enough to actually grab hold of anyone, someone without hte imagination to write fiction, someone without the romantic inspiration to write poetry, and someone who would never make any money to be published. I’m an essayist!

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