03 October 2014

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher

The reviews and general buzz around this book had led me to think it would be a bitter, angry bit of grousing at the absurdity of university bureaucracy, an attack on institutions of higher learning from within. To my pleased surprise, however, it was a quite affable, and often very funny sort of book. And curiously enough -- a powerful advocate for the very institutions it seemingly pokes fun at.

The book is a collection of letters of recommendation. Many of these are for positions within academia; students trying to get into graduate school, professors seeking tenure, etc. But one of the charms of the book is that a good quarter or more are for former students seeking regular jobs in the "normal" world -- data entry clerks, paintball park supervisors, high-profile corporate types. It is an interesting reminder of just how many people a college professor educates, and how varied are the paths they take from there. At moments, the protagonist goes even further, offering explicit arguments for the merits of English majors. I'm biased, of course, but I very much appreciated the novel's subtle bid to argue for the relevance and importance of literature and creative writing programs.

Perhaps I should be somewhat concerned that I found the main character, whom others have described as a pompous, self-centered jerk, to be fairly sympathetic. I had a similar experience when I read The Anthologist -- I was surprised, later, to learn how much people despised the narrator. Look, nobody is perfect. We are all trying. I guess I am more tolerant of people, even flawed people who have been total jerks to people who love them, if they are aware of and regret their mistakes, and  deeply care about many other humans, even those not especially close to them. And I think this character does.

Although the back story woven into the letters feels a bit shoe-horned in at times, and the plot makes some overly extreme moves, it is overall an entertaining, thought-provoking, and even somewhat moving book, a light read that stays with you after it's over.

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