This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
I lived in Latin America as a child and I learned Spanish there.
What is one experience from your childhood that you’ll never forget?
I’m not quite sure if I remember this or if someone in my family told it to me over and over again. But one day a man with an AK-47 came to our gate in Guatemala. There had been some civil wars in Guatemala and some of those soldiers or guerilla fighters would wander around and collect money from people, posing as the protection for the neighborhood. I remember my dad, who was a school teacher, going out to the gate to meet this guy with the AK-47. Most of my times in Latin America were not that scary; most of them were pretty normal.
If you could spend one day in the life of any fictional character, who would you choose?
Henry David Thoreau. I am a little obsessed with the 19th century. I think it would be kind of fun to go live at Walden Pond for a little while. Only for a while — I’m not all that interested in dying of tuberculosis. I don’t want to romanticize that period but as a scholar of the American 19th century, I spend a lot of time in my imagination there. I think it would be wonderful to try that on.
Would you rather win the lottery or be able to travel back in time to one event of your choosing?
I think I would rather win the lottery.
What is one thing that you believed as a child or teenager that you still believe today?
Cottage cheese is delicious. I remember as a very young child, deciding to myself, that I could live on cottage cheese. That’s still true.
What is something you believed as a child or teenager that you have since changed your mind about?
I was born into a Protestant Christian family and my whole family converted to Catholicism in 1995, so that’s a pretty big set of beliefs that changed. Before our conversion, I recall one of my elementary school classmates telling me that Catholics didn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus and that’s why they went around wearing black crosses on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. This is the kind of thing that I maybe had believed or been told, but now as a Roman Catholic I know that Easter is the longest season of feasting and celebration in the Christian liturgical calendar.
Who is your patron Saint?
Saint Augustine of Hippo. It was actually a mistake: I had looked at the Saint for my birthday on the calendar and it said Saint Augustine. I didn’t read it very carefully because it was actually Saint Augustine of Canterbury. But I meant to choose Saint Augustine of Hippo. That’s been wonderful because I teach the Confessions every year now. I had no idea all those years ago that every year, maybe until I die, I may be teaching Augustine’s Confessions. So, I’ve gotten to know him through his conversion and through his wide readings and his sensitive awareness of the human heart and the way God works. I think I am a lot closer to him now as somebody who has regular contact with his book.
If you had to partake in one TV Competition show which one would you choose?
I always loved the show Chopped but I’m not a very good cook. I’m probably a better singer than I am a cook but I would have more fun on Chopped. My wife and I would sometimes fantasize about doing Chopped. We’d be doing dinner and say, “Well, what can we throw together?” I have learned important lessons about making pasta from watching that show.
Do you think you look like any celebrities, or have you ever been compared to any? If so, who?
One is Jason Mraz. Also, the guy who plays Marty McFly in Back to the Future — Michael J. Fox. In certain angles and in certain lights I guess I could see those. I don’t think I look like anybody but other people have told me I look like those celebrities. Actually, this is kind of interesting. Everywhere I have lived in my adult life, somebody has come up to me and said “You look so familiar. Have I met you somewhere before?” I must have a kind of generic Anglo-American face.
If you attended Hogwarts, which house do you think you would belong to?
I guess everybody kind of wants to belong to Gryffindor, but I think because of my bookish nature and my call to the intellectual life, it’s probably going to be Ravenclaw. And I’d probably have the different strengths and vices that go along with that. Ravenclaws are more likely to be intellectually proud, but there are other strengths as well.
Who is one author that you would love to co-write a book with?
His name is M. R. James. He’s a Victorian-era British ghost story writer. He writes this genre called Antiquarian Ghost Stories where the general premise is this: a Cambridge don or a gentlemanly scholar of leisure finds an amulet, manuscript, or tomb that is either cursed or haunted or possessed. After that, scary things happen. It’s a wonderful genre. I’ve even sort of tried my hand at writing it, but I wrote a really terrible one that will never see the light of day. It would be really fun to work with somebody like that.
If you could be in the Guinness Book of World Records, which world record would you want to be known for?
When I was a kid, I wrote to the Guinness Book of World Records to try to get into their book for owning the most Guinness Books of World Records books. I had scoured garage sales and thrift stores and had been collecting as many of the editions as I could find, as far back as its origins in the fifties. I had special editions and hardcovers and paperbacks, so I wrote in and said that I had all of these books and asked if there was a record for that. They wrote me back and said “Well, unfortunately there’s a place somewhere in England that has all of them. It’s not something that can be a record because there’s a fixed number.” But then the editor asked if they could buy some from me because they had lost some of the old editions from their archive. So they bought a handful of my books and paid me a couple hundred bucks. It felt like an absolute fortune. I had never felt so rich in my life. That’s my one famous moment.
What is something that you are doing differently because of the coronavirus?
I’m trying to keep up the morale of my students during this crazy pandemic, so I’ve been sending them a weekly pandemic survival guide that includes suggestions of things to do to keep sane. It has advice, random links to movies and music, as well as books to read. I’m trying to send a few of those out to try to keep my students connected and sane when we’re all cooped up in our houses.
What is one thing a lot of people assume about you?
One time a student wrote in the professor evaluation that I wasn’t “as easy as advertised.” I think I don’t come across as particularly stern or fear-inspiring but I think my students generally have to do a lot of work.
What is one piece of advice you always try to live by?
“Ask and you shall receive.” I have found so many times that doors were opened to me professionally, academically, in the marketplace, and in all kinds of other places simply by asking. I try to share this with my students: you never know what you could get by asking and explaining why you need it.