Writing a book by day at an august institution like The Huntington, and re-reading Lucky Jim (1954) by night, it’s hard to be seduced by self-importance. Here, our lucky Jim Dixon considers the article he’s desperately trying to get published in the hopes of being renewed as a lecturer at a red-brick university:
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.“
There’s another great line in which his fellow-boarder at his rooming house asks him what got him interested in medieval history in the first place, and Dixon responds to the effect of, “I’m not interested in this. I hate it! Don’t we all do what we hate?” But I don’t have my copy of the book with me now, and I couldn’t find the quotation on the internets.
While most of the book seems eerily familiar to those of us working in academia 60 years later, there are some stray comments and set-pieces that remind us that the book was written in the shadows of war, when Britons lived under rationing and the postwar economic slump. Some of the book’s quirks also fix it in the mid-twentieth century. For example, Dixon is always attempting and failing to self-ration his cigarettes (for reasons of economy and not better health or longevity.) While dreamgirl Christine becomes his excuse to leave academia and take a chance on London, the book’s love for tobacco is perhaps its most convincing romance:
[H]e opened the cupboard that contained his smoking engines and accessories — monuments, some of them costly, to economy. As long as he could remember he’d never been able to smoke as much as he wanted to. This armoury of devices had been assembled as each fresh way of seeming to smoke as much as he wanted had come to his notice: the desiccated packet of cheap cigarette-tobacco, the cherry-wood pipe, the red packet of cigarette-papers, the packet of pipe-cleaners, the leather cigarette-machine, the quadripartite pipe-tool, the crumbling packet of cheap pipe-tobacco, the packet of cotton-wool filter-tips (new process), the nickel cigarette-machine, the clay pipe, the briar pipe, the blue packet of cigarette-papers, the packet of herbal smoking-mixture (guaranteed free from nicotine or other harmful substances. Why?), the rusting tin of expensive pipe-tobacco, the packet of chalk pipe-filters. Dixon took a cigarette from the packet in his pocket and lit it.
In any case: discuss. Be specific! And if anyone can find me that quote from Jim about how we all end up hating what we specialize in, toss it in the comments.