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05.23.09

Secrets of a Literary Seducer

Literature can be so unsexy—all those musty old books, no special effects, or movie stars showing flesh. But with Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits, Jack Murnighan makes reading a real turn-on.

When you hear that Jack Murnighan, doctor of medieval literature, has written a book about the pleasures of 50 of the most important and “difficult” literary works of all time, you might imagine a shy, awkward man—particularly after learning he prepared by doing eight years of heavy reading. You might picture a monkish type who prefers libraries to life; the kind of guy who keeps his spectacles in one piece by taping the bridge; or, at the very least, a Harold Bloom.

But Murnighan is no ascetic, no geek, and no fat Ivory Tower man of letters, either. As suggested by his title— Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits—he’s playful and hip. The editor-at-large for Nerve, the site for “literate smut,” he also happens to be boyishly sexy—with a thick swirl of ginger hair, a toothy smile, and high cheekbones. And the evening I spent in his Chinatown bachelor pad made it clear that he is a man with an appreciation for sensual pleasures—like the notes of butterscotch in the dried apricots we ate; the voice of Edith Piaf, crying out from the stereo; or the feel of the worn leather covering his oldest book, a 1695 manual called The Art Both of Writing and Judging History.

“Jack can seduce women by quoting Chaucer, Shakespeare and the rest—which isn’t a standard technique these days—but they eat it up,” says a former colleague. “Jack understands how a beautiful sentence can soften even the most impervious woman.”

Murnighan contends that he’s a vehement reader largely because books have helped him become better at “being in the world,” which he’s never been good at it. Initially, that seems like a dubious claim. For one thing, he’s had plenty of worldly success. After graduating from Brown, he got his Ph.D. from Duke and now, in addition to his Nerve gig, he also teaches creative nonfiction at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. His short stories were chosen for three editions of the Best American Erotica, and his Nerve column, “Jack's Naughty Bits”—about the salacious parts of classic and contemporary novels—has been released as two books.

book-cover---beowulf-on-the-beach
Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits. 384 pages. Three Rivers Press. $15. ()

One imagines he must be quite the ladies’ man, though Murnighan—who is in a “blissful open relationship”—tries to deny that. He admits that people frequently try to set him up, but adds, self-deprecatingly, “I think that’s mainly because I’m a respirating male biped. There seems to be a shortage of us in New York.”

His former colleague, Genevieve Field, Nerve’s co-founder, scoffs at that. “He can seduce women by quoting Chaucer, Shakespeare and the rest—which isn't a standard technique these days—but they eat it up,” she says. “Jack understands how a beautiful sentence can soften even the most impervious woman.” Murnighan concedes that he enchanted not one but two ex-fiancées with some help from Milton. “But I’ve always thought that girls have kissed me despite the books, and the smell of them that lingers on my clothes!” he says.

His apartment does have the musty aroma of a used-books store. But it works like a strange elixir as he talks about his favorite books—like Remembrance of Things Past. “Proust gives us a tutorial in sensation!” Murnighan says. “No writer has ever been more attuned to all the smells, sights, sounds, and feelings around him—and after reading him, we also become more alert to those things in our own lives! Proust teaches us to have small epiphanic experiences more often—and the more we can do that, the more we’ll really be living.”

Murnighan hasn’t always been so charming—or so hot. A math prodigy who was 4'11 and 93 pounds when he entered high school, he explains he was “totally friendless for a long time.” As hard as it is to see the child-geek in the man, you can hear that lonely kid when Murnighan says softly, “Sometimes when I was combing through the books in Beowulf on the Beach for all the jokes, wisdom, and barbs in them, I felt like Wall-E in the wasteland, collecting baubles for my own amusement.”

His desire to share the literary jewels he discovered led to Beowulf on the Beach, which he describes as a “field guide that will help you ... relish 50 of the biggest classics.” Murnighan’s preface cites a few reasons to revisit his beloved books: because Moby-Dick is funny, the Inferno will make you cry, and Ulysses has dizzying descriptions of carnal joys like drinking booze, eating organ meats, and having sex. “Let’s give literature another look,” Murnighan writes. “But this time we’ll enjoy ourselves. And I don’t mean above the ears; I want you to feel these books in your heart, in your soul, and maybe even below the waist.” To help readers do that, he introduces each book with a short essay, followed by a cheat sheet with sections like “What People Don’t Know (But Should)” and “What to Skip.”

But the real treat? Murnighan’s writing. Listen to him on War and Peace: “Sitting on the table, [it] looks like half a loaf of pumpernickel ... [Many people imagine it’s] among the least readable works in all of fiction. But the only really hard thing about Tolstoy's masterpiece is lugging it around.... the prose is straightforward ... and the plot [is] a compelling mix of Napoleon's march toward Moscow and the lives and loves of various Russian gentry.”

In choosing the books he included, Murnighan focused on titles that people felt guilty about never having read; so of the 50 covered, the majority are heavy-hitting Western canon classics—like Homer’s epics; Don Quixote; and The Brothers Karamazov. But, as he notes in his appendix, other works, like Fielding's Tom Jones and Musil's Man Without Qualities, were included in an effort “to try to patch the holes left in literary history.” Rounding out his selections are about a half-dozen works that, he admits, “aren't universally considered classics.” But they are, in his opinion, outstanding achievements that “carve out corners of literature that no one else occupies”—like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for its “lusty exuberance” and James Baldwin’s Giovanni's Room for its “pained homosexuality.”

Murnighan thinks the most important thing that literature can do for the average person is what it did for him: make him better at being in the world. “We all want to lead meaningful lives—and yet all we do, all day long, is squander meaning,” he says. “We don’t pay attention to our neighbors, to the beautiful tree we’re walking by, to what our girlfriends are trying to tell us. But reading the classics helps us to make the most of those moments.”

The last bit of evidence I had of Murnighan’s appreciation of the universe came when he walked me out of his building and pointed out the window of a corner aquarium, where hundreds of goldfish swam in a glory of orange. I walked off smiling, thinking of E.M. Forster’s famous line from Howard’s End: “Only connect! ... Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” If anyone has pulled that off, it’s Murnighan.

Maura Kelly just finished her first novel. Her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Washington Post, Salon, Glamour, Penthouse, and other publications. She also writes a dating blog for Marie Claire.