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‘Cat in the Stacks & Elizabeth Kolbert

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I’m William Repetto, a first-year graduate student at Villanova University. This is the “‘Cat in the Stacks” column. I’m your ‘cat. I’ll be posting about college life, about learning and growing here at Villanova, and, of course, about the Falvey Memorial Library’s role.



“Everyone who is part of the modern capitalist economy – whether he’s employed flipping burgers, writing code, or putting out a weekly magazine – has at one point or another considered that his efforts had an ascetic cast.”

– Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker “Why Work?” (2004)

During Elizabeth Kolbert’s visit to Villanova on Thursday, Sept. 22, the ‘Cat in the Stacks asked Kolbert about her experiences as a student, as a researcher, and as a writer for The New Yorker. Her experiences demonstrate that hard work and dedication are the crucial components of becoming a successful professional.

Students at Kolbert Event.

Students line up for Kolbert’s book signing.

When Kolbert and I had a chance to speak informally, I learned a little bit about her background and what her present job entails. Kolbert started in journalism by writing for the New York Times. When she began writing professionally, the Times had a section that consisted of articles published without by-lines. She wrote for this section until her higher-ups noticed her talent and gave her a credited position.

This sounds like every writer’s dream, right? Moving from anonymous contributor to column writer at the Times, though, was only one step in a road that would ultimately lead to a Pulitzer Prize. In the late ‘90s she began writing for the New Yorker; her Metro Matters column that covered everything New York from Donald Trump to “Adult Establishments” must have charmed the New Yorker management.

They brought Kolbert aboard in 1999, and she began writing for their “Talk of the Town” section, including an “Around City Hall” piece critical of Rudy Giuliani. As her interests focused in on climate change and global warming, her workload expanded. Kolbert mentioned that she doesn’t even have an office in New York to go into; she spends all her time on the road investigating or at home writing.

'Cat and Kolbert.

‘Cat in the Stacks and Kolbert sit down to chat.

Of course, every minute on the road does not present elucidating discoveries. She told me that the writer’s experience and the reader’s experience are vastly different, and sometimes days and weeks go by while investigating a piece that nothing major happens or comes to light.

Sometime around 2009 or 2010, Kolbert began writing The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, a process that took about four years. Reflecting on the acclaimed book, Kolbert stated, “College students are exactly the audience I wanted to reach.”

Kolbert was speaking of the fact that young people will feel the effects of global warming more so than our parents and older generations. Her words though, spoken during a career that seems to trend only upwards, take on a double meaning. While college students stand to gain the most from The Sixth Extinction, it’s college students too who could learn great lessons about hard work and passion from the life’s work that lies behind the book.

As college students in today’s world, we’re often told that networking yields the best career prospects. Kolbert’s life, however, seems to demonstrate an amendment to that assumption about networking. Each of her advancements came from being recognized for stellar output. If there are any questions about the veracity of that statement, try sifting through the 756 articles that ProQuest attributes to her newspaper work from 1984-1998 or read maybe just a few of the 179 pieces attributed to her from the New Yorker magazine.

Kolbert at book signing.

Kolbert signs a copy of The Sixth Extinction.

On behalf of my readers, I had to ask, what is the ratio between networking and hard work? How much time should we spend in the library versus at networking events? Kolbert replied:

I do think that you need to strike some kind of balance and what you produce needs to be well done and well researched and well informed, otherwise, why bother producing it? You need to not spend all your time networking and think that’s a substitute for producing your best work.

Kolbert added that she tends not to give career advice and that she might not be the best person to ask, but added, “when students ask me about journalism, and this sort of applies to natural sciences as well, the only advice I have is to become adept across a lot of different media.”

Kolbert may eschew giving career advice, but after spending some time talking with her, I will tell you that the only reason she needs to avoid giving such advice is because her career already speaks for itself: work hard, find your passion, and those intangibles that fall under the umbrella of “success” will find their way to you.


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Last Modified: September 28, 2016