“Ask Russell” is a familiar refrain at DeGolyer Library to questions on a vast array of topics, from early advertising ephemera to regional cookbooks. Russell L. Martin ’78, ’86, Central University Libraries’ man for all seasons, serves as assistant dean of collections and director of the DeGolyer. These days it is not unusual to see the respected scholar in a hardhat, steering a full book cart from one end of Fondren Library Center to the other as new spaces take shape during the renovation.
Whether he is reading, studying or transporting them, Martin’s professional and personal lives are inextricably bound to books. Taking a cue from the popular “By the Book” feature in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Browsing Forward queried Martin about favorite writers and titles and uncovered a few surprises.
Who is your favorite novelist of all time?
Almost impossible to answer, but if forced, I’d say Jane Austen.
Who are your favorite writers working today?
All of the ones we publish, of course! The DeGolyer has books by C.W. Smith, Marshall Terry, Jane Roberts Wood, Joe Coomer, Darwin Payne and Willard Spiegelman now in print or in press. The Book Club of Texas, which we also sponsor, has just published Franklin Gilliam: Texas Bookman, with contributions by John Crichton, David Farmer, Larry McMurtry and others, all reminiscing about a great figure in the antiquarian book trade. I heartily recommend all of our stock.
Beyond the DeGolyer Grub Street, I admire Wendell Berry very much, as well as Jill LePore — her sheer versatility, range and liveliness.
What’s the best short fiction you’ve read recently?
Helen Barolini’s “The Crossing,” in the Southwest Review. Actually, it is not a fictional story but a personal narrative. But it certainly is as well-crafted as a story. And I have to mention the Southwest Review, SMU’s literary quarterly. Nothing SMU has done in its 100 years of existence is as important as SWR. It is hard to think of anything that comes close, over that period, for sustained excellence and intellectual contributions to the national scene. Jay Hubble, John McGinnis, Henry Nash Smith, Lon Tinkle, Allen Maxwell, Margaret Hartley, Charlotte Whaley, and for the past 30 years, Willard Spiegelman, all of those editors have sustained and shaped the Southwest Review and made it a vital part of the literary culture of the United States. Every alumnus should subscribe; and every alumnus who is a millionaire or billionaire should endow the Southwest Review (and the Spiegelman chair) so that this important work can continue for the next 100 years.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to?
There has to be magic. By that I mean the language has to draw me in. I know after a few paragraphs whether a story has those elements. Isaac Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” translated by Saul Bellow, is a perfect example. You simply can’t put it down, or I can’t. The voice carries you along. The older I get, I find it harder to lose myself in a book in the way I could as a boy. Too many cares and distractions, I suppose. But when a voice comes along that compels me, even now, I simply follow it, grateful for the experience.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
The Pasture Book and The Livestock Book, by W.R. Thompson – two of my all-time favorites.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
The Oxford Book of Light Verse, with the introduction by W.H. Auden. It would well serve the president of the United States or the president of SMU!