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Meet Margaret Renkl's Editor Discusses Her Passion for the Humanities

Humanities Tennessee founded in 2009 as a response to the loss of local book coverage in newspapers around the state. New stories--primarily book reviews, author interviews, and features--appear each weekday. Margaret Renkl has served as editor of the site since its inception. Here she opens up about her background and passion for the humanities. 

HT: How did you first become aware of Humanities Tennessee? 

MR: From 1987 to 1997 I was a high-school English teacher in Nashville, and I started bringing my students down to the Southern Festival of Books almost as soon as the festival began. I could always count on an author lineup that featured at least one of the writers on my students’ outside-reading list.

HT: How did you get from teaching English to editing book reviews?

MR: I have a graduate degree in creative writing; even as a teacher, I never stopped writing and publishing, including book reviews. When the Nashville Scene, an alt-weekly here in town, needed an editor for its book page, I got the job. Part of that work involved organizing the paper’s coverage of the Southern Festival of Books every year, and I got to know Serenity Gerbman along the way. In a moment of pure serendipity, Humanities Tennessee decided to launch Chapter 16 the same month the Scene’s former owners decided they could no longer afford a book page, and Serenity gave me a call. 

HT: But don’t Chapter 16 reviews actually run in the Scene, too?

MR: That’s right; they do. One of the first things we realized, even before Chapter 16 went live in October 2009, is that newspapers across the state weren’t shuttering their book pages because they no longer cared about books: they simply don’t have the resources to cover books when they’re struggling to survive themselves. So we offer Chapter 16 reviews and author interviews to every newspaper in the state free of charge as a way to help Tennessee authors—and authors appearing at Tennessee bookstores and universities and libraries—find as many readers as possible. We’re very grateful to the Nashville Scene, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the Knoxville News Sentinel for helping us spread the word.

HT: What made you want to become an editor after spending most of your career as a teacher and writer?  

MR: For most of my childhood I thought I wanted to be a librarian—someone whose job was to read books. Editing Chapter 16 is sort of like being paid to read books, too, though in a different way. I get to spend a lot of time in the company of books and authors, at least, and there’s quite a bit of writing in this job, too, even if it mostly consists of emails and emails and more emails.

HT: What’s your favorite section of Chapter 16?

MR: I don’t have a favorite child, and I don’t have a favorite section of Chapter 16, but I will tell you that the thing I love best about my job is the chance to discover new writers. There’s nothing so heartening as publishing a young writer’s first essay or a debut novelist’s first glowing review.

HT: Any plans for Chapter 16’s future that you’re willing to reveal?

MR: Chapter 16 is constantly evolving—in the past year alone we’ve added a weekly newsletter, a podcast section, bios of Chapter 16 writers, resources for Tennessee authors, etc.—and we have plans for many more upgrades when funding allows. Some day we hope to include photo galleries, streaming video of author events, a comment section on every story, and a host of other features that will make the site even livelier and more dynamic.

HT: Why are the humanities important in your life? 

MR: Asking a bookworm why the humanities are important is akin to asking a bird why the sky matters: it’s simply the world I was born to inhabit. It’s the world I think we were all born to inhabit. Stories are the way we human beings organize our thoughts, our questions, our memories; and language is our best medium for telling stories. Without the humanities—literature and history and philosophy and all the other disciplines within the liberal arts—we would have no way of sharing those stories, of making connections between our lives and the lives of others. Unlike John Donne, I think all human beings are islands, entire unto themselves. Stories are the bridges we build to reach each other across the fathomless deep.

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