Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?
James Joyce's Ulysses. It showed that language was alive and that books could be capable of contouring (without ever containing) the infinite.
What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?
These four years offer the most concentrated and possibly the only opportunity for you to be exposed to every species of knowledge capable of being shaped in ten-week packets—and not to master anything. You should therefore take as many courses that fall outside of what you think you already know and are interested in as possible.
Did you go straight to graduate school after college? If not, what was the most interesting thing you did in the interim?
No. I lived in Japan, learned Japanese, began to figure out how to make installations out of garbage and other useless material, acquired a familiarity with desktop publishing software, and published a poetry and art magazine for Japanese and expatriated writers.
What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?
I cherish the complexity, musicality, and potentially democratic capacities of language in all its forms—and like the modernists, I believe that language and art have the capacity to alter collective life for the better (or worse).
What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?
The shapes we live in shape our thought. It was a hunch of which I'm now convinced, having written over 500 pages on the city of Venice.
What is your favorite work of literature to teach to undergraduates?
Henry James's The Wings of the Dove. Following these sentences with students is an adventure.
What do you like best about teaching college students at the University of Chicago?
They're curious, brilliant, yet humble in the face of the world's complexity. This is a rare combination of virtues.