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Andrew McMurry

What are you currently reading?

This is a pretty good question for me because I always have a lot of books on the go. Some of them I’ll finish; some I won’t. I’m the kind of reader who can get within 25 pages of the end of a novel and then just drop it. Momentum may have got me there but it can’t get me over the finish line. This happens a lot with Stephen King novels. I’ve got two mystery novels I’m going back and forth between: The Narrows by Michael Connelly and Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason. I know I’ll finish both of these: I like anything set in LA or Iceland. I’m also reading The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation by John Livingston and The Dumbest Generation by Mark Baurlein. Both of these books are in neutral right now. Then I should mention A New Literary History of America edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollers. I can dip into the essays in this thick book when I need a break from the mysteries. Based on my reading patterns, it may appear that I have a short attention span. But in fact I have adequate attention; I just distribute it widely.

What are your five favourite texts?

I should first say that I don’t like the word “texts.” Smacks of the lab or the workbench. Second, I can’t really boil “texts” down to single works because the nature of textuality is that it weaves physically separated books into rich tapestries of meaning and feeling. I can only describe some moments of textual intensity: discovering my brothers’ shelves of Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was eight or nine; being hypnotized by the perversely hilarious prose of Jose Saramago; enduring the oracular thunder of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Blood Meridian, and Suttree; entering a week-long misanthropic fugue after suffering through Martin Amis’ The Information. A copy of Great Expectations found in a tiny bookstore in Gibraltar led to me read a slew of Dickens novels in a sleepy town on the Moroccan coast. I spent one summer with the 20 Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brien. They’re like Jane Austen at sea on a Royal Navy vessel during the Napoleonic Wars. Another magical summer spent with the 11 novels of the far future fantasy by Gene Wolfe, beginning with The Shadow of the Torturer. Maybe I’ll just add that I’ve read everything by Jack Vance and John Ashbery, and I understand perfectly well all the former’s work but absolutely none of  the latter’s. Anything by Philip Roth is bound to unsettle. Joy Adams writes about the wreck we’ve made of the world like no one else, languidly cynical and courageously honest.

What are the top five texts that you find to be the most useful for teaching?

Is this a trick question? “Useful for teaching”? I guess Strunk and White is useful. It’s also useful for students to know something about the Bible. I have a new “green” bible that has all the relevant “environmental” passages printed in green. That’s amusing though not really useful. If by useful we mean “teaches well,” I used to think Thoreau’s Walden was chewy, and students could learn a lot about life lived deeply from it, but I don’t think it’s holding up in the internet era. I think Roland Barthes’ critique of the smug, consumerist culture of France of the 1950s, Mythologies, ought to teach better than it does—I mean, we’re still in thrall to bourgeois thinking these days even if we don’t call it that anymore. Students can learn a lot about our own hypermediated era from Marshall McLuhan’s 1969 interview in Playboy. Comic books are really where it’s at these days, and Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware is useful: good for so-called visual learners and non-visual learners alike.

What texts have you had the most fun researching?

Perversely, I’ve had a great deal of fun researching books on human catastrophe and environmental apocalypse. It’s been nice to find plenty of Cassandras in the annals of literary and cultural history and to be able to recoup some of their dire warnings for my own purposes. I recommend William Catton’s Overshoot, which dates from the Carter administration It explains beautifully the central human conundrum—how can a species so happily go about its business of destroying itself and the planet? I also enjoyed puzzling over Emerson, who is such a rich source of apothegms that you can use him to support almost anything, even diametrically opposed political positions.

What would you be if you weren't an English professor?

I think there’s still enough time for me to learn farming, and I might just do it.