Annenberg Radio

Office Hours with English Professor Emily Anderson

Reporter Julia Lin speaks with Professor Anderson about books and the pandemic.

In the first episode of Office Hours, Julia talks to Professor Emily Anderson about books, loneliness, learning, and the pandemic. They both agree - books are friends.


When the pandemic set in, life as we knew it changed completely. And one of those changes? You don’t get to sit down in your professors’ office anymore. Sure, oftentimes that experience was maybe stressful, intimidating, you know the rest, but really, sitting in those offices was a reminder that our professors are people too. I know, shocking. So now that we’re online, it’s a lot harder to get to know each other on a human level. And one of my favorite ways to get to know people? Talking about books. If you’re listening to this, maybe that means it’s one of yours too. Or not, that’s okay, everyone’s welcome. So have a seat, let’s talk about reading. Welcome to Office Hours.

Today, I’m sitting down virtually with USC Dornsife Professor of English Emily Anderson and we’re talking about books, more books, and also how we’re dealing with the loneliness of the pandemic. Come join us.

Every book has changed my life in some small way. I feel like I’ve always found books comforting. You don’t end up as an English professor if you don’t. We might not talk about that as much, at the end of the day we just really like books and reading.

So yeah, that first question - what book are you reading right now, or are you reading a book right now?

I really like detective fiction. I’m re-reading a bunch of Sherlock Holmes short stories. I think for me, the formula of the detective novel or short story is comforting because it is that promise of, whatever seems incomprehensible right now can and will be solved. People aren’t puzzles, there’s not one answer to any of us and that’s wonderful and psychologically and philosophically complex in a way I love. But sometimes when the world feels too much with us, like when the world is too heavy, it’s really nice to just have a puzzle that has an answer.

I’ve still been reading a lot of essays myself, like the Jia Tolentino ones. Right before that I finished a collection of essays by Annie Dillard called “On Being in Time.” [For The Time Being]. Next on my list to read, I have Zadie Smith’s collection of essays that she published during the pandemic. I read a lot of New Yorker articles and I love that because you can always dip in and out and it doesn’t seem to have the same kind of freight if you don’t finish something in one sitting. It has the ephemerality of a magazine. It makes it ostensibly feel a little less serious even as it feels worthwhile.

I’m wondering if books have taken on any new meaning for you since the pandemic has started.

The way I read during the pandemic has changed a little bit. I have lots of things open at the same time. As I’ve gotten older, the way I relate to a particular text changes vastly. Narrative, in addition to just affecting us emotionally, functions importantly as an act of persuasion. And again, I think that we’re all being moved, not just emotionally moved but persuaded by things that we read in ways that, unless we examine that influence, we’re not going to be aware of.

This is one that kind of came up for me when you were talking about reading with your kids and also just something that I’ve been thinking about. Why do you feel like it’s important to read books?

To me it’s important to read books because they give me pleasure, they give me comfort, they’re companions. Sometimes they can be escapist, sometimes they can be anything but. They help me approach my most difficult emotions and life experiences from a perspective that’s often just adjacent enough to mine that I can see and feel things that I would not be able to confront head-on as it were. In terms of self-expression but also creative expression, I just think those things are manifested, they’re emblematized by books. Books remain this really valuable testament of that as a facet of the human spirit. and I think that’s such a gift.

Just thinking of the kinds of forms of isolation and loneliness we’ve all been grappling with in the pandemic, maybe that’s part of why I’ve stretched out my novels in that way. In a way I wasn’t even aware of. It’s not just about not having enough time, it’s like I have a friend for a little while and I don’t want to let it go.

Books are friends, I love that.

That was Professor Anderson on the way books have kept her company during the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Anderson, thank you for joining us and hopefully, the next time we talk, it won’t be over Zoom. Here’s hoping that by then, we’ll all feel a little less lonely.

I’m Julia Lin, I’ll see you next time.