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New York Times Magazine critic and former Southern Oregon University student Sam Anderson will give a lecture Sept. 29 in Medford. Photo courtesy Sam Anderson

N.Y. Times critic to discuss his literary passion

You never know where it might lead when you take a work-study job reshelving books at the Southern Oregon University library. And then you start taking a few writing courses and doing stories for The Siskiyou, the campus newspaper.

For Sam Anderson, it led to a love of books and a prestigious job as critic-at-large with the New York Times Magazine. The "at large" means he gets to write about books and authors but also can write about Richard Pryor, President Obama's rhetoric, information overload, why criticism matters and folk singer-songwriter Pete Seeger.

Anderson will give a talk at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, in the North Medford High School Auditorium as part of the Southern Oregon Arts and Lecture Series.

Anderson is known for his informed literary depth and writing laced with a friendly, accessible voice and a wit that's tossed off, not forced, as in his comment that David Foster Wallace's lengthy itemization of a landscape in "The Pale King" is "a seamless blend of TurboTax and Wordsworth."

Anderson, a Eugene native, went to SOU in the mid-1990s. While shelving books at the campus library, he picked up intriguing titles he'd never heard of and read them.

He wrote his first-ever articles on arts and leisure for The Siskiyou and "discovered a voice — natural, funny, personal — that I think is the voice I still write in today."

His SOU teachers — Craig Wright in creative writing, Terrie Claflin Martin in feature writing and Ed Versluis in criticism — mentored him and lit a literary fire that still burns. His high school sweetheart-now-wife, Sarah Uzelac, transferred from SOU to Louisiana State University and he went with her to finish his degree.

How did Anderson, 34, get to the top of his profession at such a young age?

"I don't know. I got lucky," he said in a phone interview. "At SOU, I came to love writing and would write about my reading. I've loved it ever since. I started getting published in literary journals and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, then sent those clips to get published at the Christian Science Monitor. A literary agent called and got me in at Slate. New York Magazine saw Slate and hired me."

Free to write about anything, Anderson notes that "culture" is a great subject matter because "nothing is untouched by human culture. If you're writing about a mountain, you're asking, how do we touch this mountain? Anything we pay attention to is worth paying attention to."

In being critic-at-large, Anderson says he may get his inspiration from books, movies and the fact that "I love to go out in the world and see what's happening."

"The New York Times asked me to do a piece on the 9/11 anniversary, so I walked down to Ground Zero and here was this massive construction, the biggest construction going on in the world, and I wrote about that."

Writing about actor-author-grad student James Franco, Anderson describes their meeting: "He's wearing a standard grad-student uniform: washed-out jeans, charcoal sweater, gray sneakers, messy hair. His face — the face whose sculpted smoothness has won him countless film roles, and a Gucci endorsement, and daily floods of heartsick prose poetry on Internet comment boards — has been abducted by a mildly disturbing mustache."

Anderson may deliver some zingers but says, "I generally try not to be cynical. I try to be very open, even to parts of the culture I'm not interested in right away."

Anderson cites a line from Czech novelist Milan Kundera that became a motto for his career: to understand anything, "you need to understand its beauty, actual or potential. I thought that was really profound. What makes it beautiful to anyone? I've written a handful of scathing reviews but it's not my thing to do that."

Asked whether he can be non-cynical in the hardball world of New York critics, Anderson said, "I don't think anyone's going to miss it if one critic doesn't do it."

One literary feat, postponed all his life, was reading James Joyce's "Ulysses" from front to back, something he accomplished in Joyce's Dublin, where all the Irish voices, he says, made it an easy read.

"It all started making sense and took many hours of my time, but he's such a genius, the biggest genius of all time. He could do everything. It was jaw-dropping."

Anderson's take on things can range from the savvy to the sweet, as in this passage on Seeger and Anderson's father's intense love for the man:

"Some of the most memorable nights of my childhood were spent listening to my father harmonize around campfires, on church retreats or at backwoods Oregon hippie festivals amid topless women and clouds of marijuana smoke, playing talking blues or Lutheran hymns or protest songs or (to me, as I drifted off) an old German lullaby."

Tickets for "An Evening with Sam Anderson" are $20, $10 for students and are available at www.jclf.org and Bloomsbury Books in Ashland.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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