A Few Bookish Questions With Bradley Garrett

Bradley Garrett’s Bunker is truly one of my favorite reads of the year so far. It’s partly a niche cultural tour (which I always love), partly an easy-reading philosophical exploration, and a little bit of a revealing, beautifully written memoir about what happens when you spend too much time living with the end of the world always in mind. He was kind enough to take some time to answer a handful of bookish questions. Enjoy!

1. You seem to read a lot of philosophy. Any favorites in that broad category? 

As an ethnographer and geographer, I spend most of my time thinking about how culture and society shape our relationships to the landscapes around us, and in how we are affected by being in particular places. So, in that vein, I enjoy reading spatially-inspired theory by philosophers like Edward Relph, Kathleen Stewart, Keith Basso, and Doreen Massey. I knew Massey when I was working on my PhD and she was a beam of light. I did my doctoral research on urban exploration and spent a lot of time jumping fences to sneak into places. The first time I met her, she told me “you know, fences also can protect the vulnerable, so I wouldn’t vault them all.” Doreen died just before I started working on Bunker, which is a shame, because I think she would have found it comical that I ended up writing a book about the most sheltered spaces on the planet.  

I have a penchant for philosophy in the existentialist tradition — particularly Jean-Paul Sartre, who people find depressing, but I find enlivening. However, my primary existential muse in doing research for Bunker was Søren Kierkegaard. His writings on dread and anxiety were something I kept revisiting over the three years I worked on the book. In fact, I think I carried The Concept of Dread with me everywhere I went, alongside E. M. Cioran’s grim and furious philosophical pessimism, which could snap my out of writer’s block in an instant.   

2. Which books were particularly helpful in your exploration of the underground and of apocalypse culture? (I saw Rob Macfarlane and Mark O'Connell mentioned in the acknowledgements; I've read their most recent books and loved 'em both!) 

There really hasn’t been much work done on prepper and survivalist culture, but it did manage to find a copy of Richard G. Mitchell’s Dancing at Armageddon from 2001, which was extremely enlightening. Mitchell spent ten years doing embedded research with survivalists for the book, even attending some unnerving para-military training camps with them. In light of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by survivalists and militia, that book took on an eery weight.

In terms of doomsday scenarios, Bryan Walsh’s book End Times and Toby Ord’s The Precipice reinforced, through empirical research, what preppers were telling me every day. Peter Brennan’s The Ends of the World was useful in seeing past human hubris and into geological deep time. Central to the latter text is the classic conundrum: if we did indeed vanish, perhaps by our own hand, would the Earth care? Garrett Graff’s book Raven Rock, about the U.S. government’s “underground Pentagon” buried in the mountains of Pennsylvania, is a masterclass in research.  

And, as it turns out, I was working on Bunker at the same time Robert Macfarlane was writing Underland (which I feature in as a character, weirdly!) and while Mark O’Connell was writing Notes from an Apocalypse. Mark and I ended up visiting some of the same locations, which we realised over a coffee in Dublin just before our respective books were published. Were both a bit shocked and by the revelation, but it seems dread was in the air in the years leading up the pandemic. Somehow, all three of us had a sense that we would be hunkering down in the future, in the literal and metaphorical underground.

3. Do you read much fiction? Any favorites?  

Though I’m probably not supposed to admit this, as a university professor, I read more fiction that non-fiction. I used to tear through multi-book fantasy epics like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series but lately I’ve turned to science fiction. While I was writing Bunker I read Orson Scott-Card’s Ender’s Game Trilogy and a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin — The Left Hand of Darkness being one of my favorite books of all time. As many of your readers will know, Le Guin’s parents were rather famous anthropologists, and I think that influence helped shape her imagination of extra-terrestrial ethnographic encounters, which I sort of felt like I was having hanging out in people’s bunker for weeks on end mulling over conspiracy theories. 

4. What are the books and/or authors that have particularly shaped your writing style? 

A geographer named Tim Edensor, who wrote a fantastic book called Industrial Ruins, is one of my favorite academic writers. He ended up serving as the external examiner curing my PhD defence. I recall in the leadup to that defence desperately wanting him to see that I might reach his level of writing one day. I’m still hoping! I enjoy reading Robert Macfarlane, but also find it a bit depressing, knowing I’ll never in my life be that lyrical or precise with language. 

The best non-fiction writing I’ve ever encountered, however, was by a journalist named Matthew Power. He never wrote a book, but often contributed to Harper’s Magazine, which I’ve read religiously for two decades. There was a story published there in 2008 called “Mississippi Drift,” about Matt hanging out with some vagabonds who built a raft out of garbage that they tried to float down the Mississippi River. It’s a masterpiece. I pinned it up above my computer while I was writing my first book, Explore Everything, as inspiration. In another strange twist of fate, Matthew ended up flying to London and living with me for two weeks to write an article for GQ about urban exploration. We became good friends, and he promised to teach me the longform craft in Brooklyn when I finished my PhD. I ended up doing a post-doc at Oxford, and not returning quickly enough — Matt died on assignment in Uganda in 2014. I’ve never known someone as inspiring and encouraging as Matt and I will, one day, I hope, contribute a piece of longform to the world that he would have been proud of.     

5. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list? 

I found that one of the glaring gaps in prepper practices related to personal health — both mental and physical wellbeing. It became clear during the pandemic that health is as important, if not more, than stockpiling supplies and skill-building, and so I’ve been doing my best to get my head around what we can do to extend survivability through means available to all of us: diet, exercise, meditation, etc. So, I also have a stack of non-fiction centered around human longevity and biohacking that I’m working through, which includes Extra Life by Steven Johnson, On Not Dying by Abou Farman, and Ageless by Andrew Steele. All three are fantastic books and give me tangible hope that, barring unexpected catastrophe, many of us might live well past 100. After thinking about a pending apocalypse for so many years, it’s a salve to read positive speculation.  

Summer is of course the season for escapism, so I’ve also been saturating myself in the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks and re-read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire after spending my 40th birthday hiking canyons around Moab. Damn I love that book. I expanded that trip into the Greater Southwest using Willa Cather as a guide.   

6. Do you have any all-time favorite books that have shaped your life and thinking? Books you think about a lot and/or return to again and again? (Some of this may have been answered in the above questions.) 

One rises above all other immediately: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which feels to me like the closest thing we have to a secular sacred text. I’ve read every word he’s ever written, and it will come as little surprise that The Road provided, in my imagination, one answer to a central theme I tackle in Bunker: what world do you find when you emerge from it?

I will never forget reading Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Donna Tartt’s A Secret History and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I remember reading delicate passages in all three books, marvelling, and then re-reading them, soaking in them. I even recall where I was when I read them all. I think the experience of having the imagination flooded by literature that good seared my surrounding at the time — sights, smells, temperature, background noise — into my brain. Which of course, as a geographer, I find totally fascinating. Which brings us full circle back to spatial theory: senses of place are shaped by experience. Space, literature, and perception are inexorably intertwined.  

Bradley Garrett’s book Bunker: What it Takes to Survive the Apocalypse, will be published in paperback by Scribner on August 3rd.