For over two decades, Michael Silverblatt has hosted KCRW's Bookworm, the beloved public radio celebration of fiction and poetry featuring half-hour, one-on-one interviews with writers. Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas [MP3] [iTunes link].
We've talked before about Bookworm listeners and how they consider the show to be their own special thing, their own little secret, a show presumably broadcast on a frequency only their ears can hear, a show for them. What do you chalk this up to, this perception that the show is for the individual you're talking to it about?
I think people are very surprised to find a show like that. I call it “the surprise at finding the real thing.” So many times, you hear the interview and you just know that the writer is talking to someone who hasn't read his book. Then you hear interviews like mine, and I've read the author's complete works. The sound of it being genuine, the likelihood of one of the mysteries about the book being answered and revealed. I think books are full of mysteries. I think readers need all kinds of information to help them read a book more deeply or more completely. I think the writer gets very charmed, enchanted, thrilled to be speaking to someone who really knows a good deal of what he knows of what he's done.
Do you think it's a function of the thirst that exists for hearing a conversation between somebody informed enough to have read all of an author's works and that author, or is there something more? Do you think Bookworm taps into a specific enough culture that it's going to feel like someone's special secret if they're within that culture?
Colin, I think first of all, the surprise is that it's fun. It's not an academic show. We have a terrific person here at KCRW named Matt Holzman, and he always used to tell me he thought that if he hadn't read the book, he wouldn't feel at home listening to the interview. Until he started listening; he realized it's like eavesdropping on a private conversation with someone who is exposign a whole section of their mind, of their hope, of their thought. We talk about everything on the show, not just the book. The book leads to all kinds of places. You can get anywhere in an interview about a good book.
This idea of the talk being “fun” — I think we should sketch what this is opposed to. When somebody hasn't heard your program or any book show on public radio, do you think they're envisioning something that is not fun by default?
I've had to do all kinds of strategies to make sure that people think of the show as friendly. That includes the theme song, which was from a little yellow record sung by Jiminy Cricket that I first heard when I was a kid. The desire to get the guest laughing. I think the sound of a radio interview is the sound of a give-and-take between people. The breathing, the laughter, the time it takes to think, to answer a question. All that belongs there. It shouldn't be edited out and the guest has to be comfortable enough to make the sounds of communication rather than classroom sounds of lecturing or of giving a rote answer.
I want there to be surprises. I like it when something I've noticed in a book, the author thought was only something that would be recognized by his parents or his best friend. I want the author to be communicating as an enormously present human. That's what I mean by “fun.” It's not fun when you hear people speaking by rote or telling you what to think. It is fun when you get the sense that two people in front of microphones are starting to dance with each other. That there's thought as dance, thought as improvisation. That's a delight.
This brings up an issue I started thinking about when I heard programs like Bookworm that inspired me to get into this crazy game myself, which is the concept of interview versus conversation. People call Bookworm an interview show, but I believe I read in an interview someone did with you a decade or so ago in print that you describe Bookworm as more a conversation show than an interview show. I can take that to mean what you just said: that you have two humans completely present, performing a two-way exchange. How do you go about making a show broadly called an interview program into a conversation?
I know exactly what you mean. My first rule is, I never use a list of prepared questions. A list of prepared questions makes sure that you're not going to listen to the person's answer; you're just moving on to the next question. You've charted out the conversation in advance with minimal opportunity for invention. I want to be safe enough in my preparation to go anywhere the writer wants to go. I want to be able to follow him, I want to be able to lead him, and you can hear in the broadcast — all 20 years are on the web — and I think there's a point where you hear the conversation literally becoming the real thing. There's a breath that one of us takes, and here we are.
Once I went to college, I had the privilege of being among what were called “New York intellectuals,” whether that was Dwight Macdonald or Leslie Fiedler or Susan Sontag. In those living rooms at night, conversations would become incredibly diverse, funny, wild, unpredictable. The people were infernally bright, infernally articulate, very witty. The idea that talk could be an adventure, that's what I wanted the show to be. You can't do that in the interview format. I have to tell you the truth, Colin: after 20 years, I don't think I know, still, how to do what would be called a formal interview.
As an interviewer myself, who at the very beginning was writing out his questions word-for-word — I'm talking verbatim, I was reading off a script because that's how intimidated I was — was that always the case? Was it ever thus? Did you never have a question sheet?
I never wanted one. I'm very alive on my feet. I wanted to be able to devote myself entirely to the audience and to the guest. If I'm doing it publicly, that's especially important, because you're acting as a whole audience's representative. Say you're taking, just for argument's sake, to Toni Morrison. I did a two-part interview with her recently. If I were doing that in an auditorium, a good two-thirds of the audience would feel that they could do a better job than me. I'm there to make sure the questions they need to hear get asked, and I'm there to ask them in a way that will be surprising.
If they're the inevitable questions, the questions you always ask Toni Morrison, that they be stated in a way that's unusual and unpredictable so that the author isn't bored by having to answer. I'm mediating between Toni Morrison and an audience of people who feel they know her better, have more rights to her than I do. I have to earn my right to be there by being fully present and fully in the moment. If I'm looking down at a steno pad with questions, it's gonna go dead.
That's the thing we fear most, you and I; we fear dead air, dead sentences, dead interchange. We're in a medium that is absolutely a detector for deadness. If you know what you're going to be saying the next second, the microphone will pick up that deadness. You won't hear an alive voice talking to you, and that's the most exciting thing about radio: hearing directly from the voice in collaboration with the mind.
You have the author you're interviewing, you have the reaction on their face and in their voice and in their body language. You have that as a metric of your own performance. What other metrics do you have that tell you whether you're functioning like you should be, in your mind, as the audience's representative?
The first key for me is to be looking my guest in the eye. If the interview is in the studio, chances are we're looking at each other eyeball-to-eyeball constantly. It's disconcerting at first, but I find it makes for a complete flow, that if the gaze doesn't break, the conversation doesn't break either. I'm very sensitive to body language and I use a lot of it myself. People tell me that my hands are very expressive; my father used to say that when he'd watch live interviews with me.
I think we're always having two or three conversations, the guest and I, at once, through our mouths, through our eyes, through our hands. You're hearing a large percent of that conversation over a microphone, but you're not hearing the whole thing. We're telling each other when a sentence is about to end. “Oh!” the eye says. “That's pretty interesting. Tell me more.” “Oh!” the hand says, as it starts to roll, “Let's go on with that. That's good.” They're giving me all kinds of approval signs, and I'm giving them back.
For the benefit of the listening audience, I should inform them that we are recording not face-to-face; we're recording over what's called a tape sync. Michael is in the KCRW studio, I'm in the KCSB studio and I'm only getting his voice. But that's the way I've grown accustomed to it; I rarely do in-person interviews because of the location of this station.
I think of a guest we've both had, Alexander Theroux. Talking to a guy like him, so much is simply coming out of his mouth — there's so much he'd giving you with just words — I imagine myself overwhelmed if I had several dimensions of contact with a guy like that, who's just bubbling over at every moment. Is there a tide you have to stem of information, somehow? How do you manage all that?
You're asking a very important question to this kind of interview. So many of my guests, not just a genius and wise guy like Alexander Theroux, have a reputation. Is Norman Mailer going to punch me in the nose? Well, he can no longer, he died. Is Gore Vidal going to make me feel so small that I crawl like an anchovy to the corner of the plate? Anything can happen, and that's important for the listener too. Joan Didion, on the one hand, is famously shy. But when her mind clicks on, it's as sharp as a tack.
We're talking to the most intelligent people in the country, the most intelligent people on the world. Sometimes when I'm talking to, say, Carlos Fuentes, it's an imagination that's inspired people all over the globe, and I have the privilege of talking to him. I have to be worthy of that privilege. That's the time I spend in preparation, getting ready. I read as much as I can. I read everything. How do I know if it's working? Most of these people, it's not that they're used to being in a conversation with an ignoramus. Hardly. I don't want to sound as if I'm saying that. But most of our colleagues, they're doing five shows a week, two, three hours a day, in certain cases. Those shows have three, four guests, twenty guests a week. It's impossible for your conventional host to do the preparation.
It's like the Peter Principle: you're promoted to the state of your highest ineptitude. You will get promoted until you cease to be able to do a good job. Most of the people doing interviews with writers have been promoted until they're unable to do the job that ought to be done. I would like to say to colleagues, it's disrespectful to talk to one of the most intelligent people in the world without having read their work. It just is. It sort of doesn't matter whether you have the time to do it; you better not sleep that night and make the time. But we all know the facts. The facts are that they get to the mic and they wing it, and you hear the sound of the author being bewildered. “How do I answer this?” or “Oh, this again. Do I have to answer this question again?” You hear that terrible sense of the heart sinking, the stomach sinking, the writer not being asked to dance.
When he was alive, Norman Mailer used to say to his publisher, “On the day when I'm talking to Silverblatt, don't schedule anything else. I want to be in full trim.” In other words, this is a guy who wanted to dance and fight around the ring. That was his joy. That's what writing was for him. I want to be talking as close to the person at the desk as I can possibly get.
If someone were to listen to a Bookworm interview from the earliest days of the show and compare it to an interview today, what stylistic evolutions, purely in your own questions and your delivery of them, would pop out the most?
Let me be fully honest. When I started this show, I was a geek. I liked a certain kind of book. I have a feeling, from knowing some of your interests and your essays, Colin, that we have similar tastes. I liked the esoteric, the difficult, the demanding. In other words, every week I would have liked to be talking to a version of David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon.
But that's not, by and large, what we're talking to. I have some wonderful people with me, in particular my co-producer Melinda Siegel, who brought me to be aware that the difficult books that I like are not people's reading fare. I came to believe, partially through her help, that a critic, whether writing criticism or not, should be more than a fan of a particular kind of work. In other words, a really good reader should be able to recognize the best in whatever form.
Personally, I don't like reading mysteries; too many deaths in a single book upset me, and I start to feel I want to go a funeral and mourn by the end of a really murderously populated thriller. So I don't do thrillers, and not much science fiction, on the show. But otherwise, those books about human beings living together in a marriage or a family, I didn't used to like them. I used to like the kind of book that was started in America by Catch-22. A bunch of wild cards in an environment that's strange and unpredictable. That's Catch-22, that's V, that's Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's Cradle, that's John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. Those tend to be “guy novels” populated by guys. It's the truth. I didn't want to acknowledge it at first.
Now I like to read Ann Beattie, Anne Tyler. I think there's a lot of beautiful, subtle — not just heartfelt and earnest and sincere, but devious — storytelling, that's storytelling about human beings. I had to widen my taste. It's very important. I had to have some tastes that would coincide, from time to time, with those of my listeners, if I wanted my listeners to step up to the plate and try some of my hard stuff. It has to be give-and-take. That's what an interview is, but that's what any relationship is when you're trying to get someone to love what you love. You have to be willing to try their stuff, too.
Bookworm has reached a point where I daresay that you have become not necessarily an intimidating figure, but a deliverer of challenging questions. Authors are more intimidated by you now than I would imagine you are intimidated by authors. But in the beginning, it must have been quite a challenge to be sitting face-to-face: studios are small, you're right there with — would it be too much of an exaggeration to say? — your personal idols, talking to them. Was that an obstacle initially?
I know that many people say that the writer that they meet is, alas, not the person they've been reading. I haven't found that to be the case. I would like to think, I hope, that I'm very good at what I do, and I like to think that I know, after I've read nine or ten books by a person, who that person is, or is going to be with me, at any rate. You have to understand, Colin: if someone has taken the time to read all your books, you tend to like that guy. Most of the people coming into Bookworm, they're eager to be my friends, especially when they hear me say the things they've been dreaming of hearing from a reader maybe since they've began writing. I see my job as saying those things, if I feel them. I'm a directly unaffected emoter. I love writing. When writing is exciting — I know of very few things more exciting, maybe not what you'd expect — it's a very important thing to communicate love. I think that's what I do. Certain of my favorite writers on the show have become personal friends, friendships that have lasted up until the death of the writer.
Susan Sontag and I talked on a regular basis from the day we met. I said to her, “Do you think, perhaps, be could be… friends?” And she said, “Friends? What are you talking about? We are already friends. We've lost too much time! When you come to New York, you will tell me and I will arrange to spend entire days with you. When I come to Los Angeles, I will tell you and you'll make yourself free to me and we will be in constant contact.” We'd read together, we'd tell each other what we were readign, we'd be thrilled to discover a masterpiece. There was nothing like sharing the feeling that you'd discovered a masterpiece along with Susan Sontag.
Art Spiegelman introduces me to graphic novels. I feel like no one could be a better adviser. It's a thrill and an honor to be in touch, to be in the life of another person you admire. When I go to New York, I frequently am the guest of the Spiegelman family, and I love being there. I love their kids. All sorts of people talk about interviewers and their neutrality. Personally, Colin, I think an interview is good to the extent that it refuses to stay neutral, that it gets passionate, sometimes even a little bit harsh. I'm not good at harshness; I'm not a harsh person. And that answers your first question. Yeah, I'm still intimidated, and I'm always surprised to hear that people are intimidated by me. I think of myself as gentle. I used to have a whole stuffed animal collection. I'm easily, easily wounded, and — I don't know, are you intimidated right now?
I find I don't get intimidated, if only because of the medium standing between me and a guest. I'm not actually looking anybody in the eye. In the occasions that I have been looking straight at a guest, it feels a little more of a high-wire act, if you know what I mean.
Yeah, but someone like me would be more likely to kiss you than to punch you in the nose.
I'm glad you've brought up your friendship with Susan Sontag, because there's a contrast that I see here. I think of you two and I think of the work that she did and the work that you have done. To think that you were such good friends, it's nice to hear, because I also think of your intellectual attitudes as, in a way, opposite. You described going to college and meeting up, at last, with a series of New York intellectuals. I think of a certain type, from the people you mentioned, the New York intellectuals of that generation, as having a much more confrontational intellectual style than you do.
In an interview in the CityBeat, you mention that Susan Sontag would, faced with a question she considered stupid, tell that person they were asking a stupid question and proceed to — I don't know if “shoot down” is the right term — tell them what negative thoughts she had about that. You had a quote about there being something to be said for having a sweet nature, patience and tolerance. Is that a contrast in styles you've thought about much?
Constantly. Absolutely. When Susan came up into New York, there was a world of the intellect afoot that she was a part of. The people were ferociously bright; people all around were aspiring to be a part of that world. Even if you didn't hope to write, if you were reading the Partisan Review, for instance, you thought of yourself as being in dialogue with these people, and you thought of yourself, in some sense, as their peer, and you wanted to be lost in admiration for their brilliance and acumen at analysis and political thought and literary thought and being up to the moment.
25 years pass. The sixties go by. We no longer have all kinds of basic faiths in the possibility of government and representational democracy. All kinds of things fail, and along with the failures comes a less-than-complete devotion to literary and intellectual culture. It is no longer the time for a literary intellectual, for a public intellectual, to attack a young person who, after all, is only aspiring to be me. I mean, what an honor. What an incredible honor. And what a rare thing: of course more people wanted to be Susan Sontag than want to be Michael Silverblatt. That makes sense to be at any stage of the game, but particularly back then.
There were public intellectuals. You can name them, all kinds of reviewers and interviewers, some of them my friends and teachers: Pauline Kael, Dwight Macdonald, Leslie Fiedler. What is the incredible interest in French theory? Michel Foucault and everyone who comes after Baudrillard, Agamben, Žižek. It's the lure of the public intellectual. But now the public intellectual, I believe, must be a wooer of a new population of listeners and followers. It is our job to recruit, to use that word Harvey Milk used. We are recruiters to the ranks of the mind and the imagination.
To my mind, there is nothing more beautiful than the public use of the imagination, of being taught and knowing that you can think on your feet, with, for, around anyone. That is, you know — wow. There was a book about Dwight Macdonald called A Critical American. We have to be analyzing our culture. Susan used to say it was virtually the obligation of the artist to be antagonistic to the culture; it keeps the culture on its feet. It keeps it alive and responsible to us. If we stop challenging it and asking it questions and forcing it down its own personally devised rabbit hole, if we let it escape through all sorts of evasion, shame on us. Shame on us.
And yes, we have to be tough, but in terms of recognizing and finding one another, when I find a young person who reads, I want to read his work. I want to help him get into the best writing program he can get into. I want to have protégés, I want to be a mentor to people. I'm a mentor to people I've never met. And for me, that is a great thing. To Susan, back then, someone had to prove themselves able to run an entire obstacle course before she would notice. She just didn't want an inferior creature coming and breathing the same air.
We don't have the same liberty now, to be judgmental, because we can say, “Oh, I can train you to think better, to think faster, to think with more lively words. It's not a shame for a young person not to know something; just don't pretend to know something you don't know. Ask me to give you the history of that. I want to amaze you; I'll give you a history without opening a book. I'm pretty up on my fields. That's what we're here for. We're here to re-parent a whole generation who had a faulty education. It wasn't their fault, but they have to improve it.
In some ways, it's more of an optimistic intellectual generation now if the view is of being able to take all comers, anybody willing to listen and to learn. Whereas what you were describing before, the older intellectual attitude, being, “Well, prove yourself, and then we'll see.”
They were very pugnacious. One of my other teachers, a marvelous man named Lionel Abel, was describing his relationship to the art critic Harold Rosenberg. He said, “We were willing to fight with any weapons at our disposal. We were our weapons.” I do remember having been at parties and salons, dare I say, with intellectuals who were nothing but the guts of battle.
In fact, that very Lionel — I think to startle people and get attention — in the midst of an argument, said to someone, “I am not a coward. You are a coward. Watch this.” And he proceeded to set his own hair on fire. Can you imagine wanting that kind of theatricality? But yes, on the other hand, I can imagine wanting it not to be boring. Wanting to have informed, passionate, well-stated opinions defended by one's very hair.
But there's a distinction to be drawn between wanting to be fun, wanting to display and incite passion and the forbidding bravado of setting one's hair on fire. When you're doing Bookworm, is that a thin line to walk? You want to keep the intellectual substance there, and certainly in as much quantity as possible, but what does accessibility mean to you? If someone tells you to make the program accessible, what does that translate to as far as an actual action, when you're face-to-face with an author?
Let's face it: I'm not going to rough up my guest. But I am aware that sometimes niceness, goodness, it's like serving warm milk. It's a soporific. So I have to do something to shake up my inclination toward the too-generous and the too-sweet. That's in using kamikaze vocabulary. What's an example of kamikaze vocabulary? The phrase “kamikaze vocabulary.” You didn't expect it in that sentence. The surprise words keep people on their feet. On the other hand, I learned, since those first years you talked about, I'm not allowed to use every word I learned to study for the SAT in the course of a half-hour of conversation. I have to be speaking a language that, to some extent, feels like American broadcast language.
I remember the first night I was in London, I was listening to a common, anyone-in-the-family-watching talk show, with a politician saying in an interview, “Why that's anodyne bosh!” Anodyne bosh? We don't get to do that in America; people barely know what “anodyne” means. They were saying it casually in the living room I walked into the very first night was in London, and I thought, “That's British television. Wow.”
I'm envious of it, but am I fool enough to think that it will do in America? No, no. I have to be constantly guessing at what is going to hit you right between the eyes. Sometimes I aim my voice: you hear my voice coming up from the bottom of my throat, and there's a bit of gravel in it. That's urgency. That's one of our tools. Using all the tools: language, the right language. Knowing when to quote. Sometimes using longer sentences than you ever hear on the air, knowing that I've got you by the throat, and unless you drop away, you're going to be with me to the very last word because I can construct a great sentence before your very eyes. I like being able to do that. I don't want to be thought of as being arrogant about it, but what's wrong with arrogance if it's justified, on the other hand? I like to think that there's American broadcasting where intelligence and acumen become so sharp and interesting that you feel like you're at some kind of verbal prizefight.
If I were to hazard a guess at the secret of Bookworm's appeal, one of the elements is, as you just said, you're not talking down to the audience. I think, for a lot of consumers of media — and that's all of us — there is a thirst, even if unacknowledged by the people themselves, to not be talked down to. I don't know if this is something you've heard from fans of the show who reach out to you, but it seems to me there's this need that goes unmet, and there's blindness to it on the part of both the consumer of media and many of the makers of media. If you keep a discussion pitched to the level as high as you want it, an audience will rise to meet you if you produce your media with the confidence that they can.
Let me respond paradoxically. I've often said, when people have asked me how I'd ideally like to spend my life, I'd like to be awake in bed with my eyes closed and be paid for it. That's because I like watching my thoughts and my waking dreams. I believe they have things to tell me, and there's a constant communication. I think there's a paradox about talking to listeners. I don't want to put you to sleep, but I do want to be as rich and rewarding and resonant as a dream. I think that is what poetry does, what great literature does.
As you read, you are teetering on the brink between the extraordinary state of total signification that a dream has, and the somewhat lessened state of articulate argument that language has. I want the listener to almost feel like the Bookworm show is the mad tea party in Alice in Wonderland. That mad men of various stripes, and mad women, are talking together, and that somehow or other, instead of dormice and tea, words and ideas will be in use constantly and in constantly surprising ways. That's a hard ideal to live up to, but I think it's what the best writing creates.
The best writing, as often as not, is creating a space that's on the page and in your mind and reflecting off your eyes. Where does literature take place? Ultimately, I would say, the imagination. And the imagination is a place, once you get there, of nearly infinite access. It has access to everything. It knows things that you don't know you know. It knows words that it's read that you've never used in public. I want the interview space between me and my guest to be like a magic, inspired space where the imagination, rather than the mind, is holding forth. Ambitious, huh?
It certainly is. I hear this vision of the show that you have, and I've heard hundreds and hundreds of Bookworm episodes — it sounds right to me. But —
Really? Thank you. I really appreciate that. That means more than anything to me.
I'm glad my listening does not go unappreciated, but it's the show itself I appreciate. What I wonder is, when you encounter other Bookworm appreciators and they talk about their idea of the show and what the show is to them, is it ever starkly different than how you see the show? Do you ever talk to somebody for whom Bookworm is a different entity, seemingly, to them than it is do you?
First of all, let's face it: it's not for everyone, although I would like it to be. At KCRW, we were once witness, by proxy, to a new board member who said, “Why thank you. What an honor to be on the board of KCRW. I love everything about the station except for Michael Silverblatt.”
You were the one exception?
I was the one exception. And thank goodness the general manager said, “This may not be the board for you, then. We may have made a mistake. We believe in and love what Michael Silverblatt does.” What did the guy object to? A full half-hour given to a writer you may never have heard of when that period could have been given to three writers who you have heard of. I, of course, disagree. I don't think having heard of someone is an index to the quality of what you're discussing. I don't think that fame has anything to do with profundity, necessarily, and certainly not recently. That's the first thing.
Second thing, my voice is not me. One of my good friends — now unfortunately dead — when the show was originally on, he went to a party where there were plenty of very, very wealthy socialites. I mean, the highest level. He was a celebrity hairdresser and he did Elizabeth Taylor's hair, so when he would go with someone as a guest to a party, he was meeting an elite. When they discovered that he knew me, they asked him, “Oh, what's Michael Like? I love his show!” My friend Arthur had the presence of mind to say, “Why don't you tell me what you think he's like?”
These extraordinary women said, “Well, I think he's blonde and very ethereal. He's so sensitive, he's dreamy and very skinny.” For the first time in my life, at least in someone's imagination, I was like a beach bum surfer dude. It was really beautiful to be that, at least in someone else's imagination, because it's not an experience I'm going to have in this lifetime. I'm a balding guy. I'm an intellectual; I look like an intellectual. My glasses are pretty thick. I think I smile pretty nicely, there's something cute about me, but I'm never going to be the dreamy blue-eyed wonder that they had heard. That is one of the wonders of radio: for them, this voice gave them that. Well, thank you. I wish I had been there to thank them myself.
I want to go back to the one board member who didn't like your show, the reason being half-hours where the author is someone the listener might not have heard of. That stuck in my craw, because it makes me think to my own Bookworm listening habits. This applies to any interview program. Say I'm listening to it on the podcast and have a bunch to select from, invariably I pick the name that I haven't heard of. There's some sort of urgency to that, as in, “Here's an author I don't know of. This is someone I'm missing entirely, therefore it is more important that I hear what this author has to say than somebody whose books I may have read or who I may be aware of.” Is that an unusual way of listening to Bookworm?
I hope not; I hope that's the right way. But let's remember, we're just about through. We're in a paradigm shift. The person who said that about the show was probably someone who would also say, “Time is money.” Well, my dears, we're running out of money and we're running out of time, and we have some time left to learn something on Earth, hopefully to learn from one another. We never know, when we're outside that time-is-money kind of thought, who our teachers are going to come out to be and what the lesson is we're given to learn.
I think a person is more likely to hear something that will be meaningful to them on a program like Bookworm, if not Bookworm itself, because speaking to the heart, speaking to the mind, speaking to the soul, speaking to the imagination are all a different process than speaking to the pocketbook or speaking to the genitals. We have been watching that kind of speech dominate America for at least eight years, I would say many more, and we want your ears back and we want your eyes and your hearts back, and we're willing to speak the language that you need badly that you haven't been hearing recently.
If there's any trick in my trade, anything I can learn to make myself more accessible to you, I want to speak that way. I want to be the Whitman of the air, the Whitman who says, “Love poetry. Love the unknown. Go where you haven't been. Risk. Dream. Partake of. Be like other people that you've never dreamed of having anything in common with. Be a part of it all.” That is the fabulous American dream, and there have been other Americas that have replaced the America of its best dreams. We want the best dreams back.
I talk to a great many book people on this show, and there's a strain of discourse that I can identify from them and from the wider talk on the internet and in papers. I call it “reading pessimism,” “book pessimism,” call it what you like: the notions that the book is dying, the novel is dying, nobody's reading, print is on its last legs. It's one of the refreshing things about Bookworm, that that sort of thing doesn't tend to make it in. The show is a celebration of reading and what's to be gained from fiction and poetry. I've also heard you quoted in other interviews as a little bit wary or fearful of a possibly real decline in reading. Where do you fall on the optimism-to-pessimism scale?
Let's begin with the impossible proposition that opposing things can be true at the same time. The opposing things that are true in this case is, one, more people are reading more books than ever before, and two, the audience for serious fiction and poetry is as large as it ever has been. That's on one side. On the other side, there's an economic idea that something that grows has to keep growing. In other words, something that increased by 25 percent must increase by not just 25 percent but 37 percent next time.
That's not happening with most things. It's not happening to newspaper readers. There are as many newspaper readers as ever, but it's not fulfilling the kind of growth curve that they think of as meaningful profits. Well, yeah. But being an informed person is not something you do for profit. And even you and I, as magnificently well-paid as I'm sure both of us are, we are neither of us rolling in it as a result of being well-informed and poetic. The rewards are elsewhere. The rewards are being able to convince others and teach others things, to share and perpetuate values that were ours before we were born in the form of other people who created and shared those values. We are the beauty conservation when it's not conservative, we are the beauty of tradition when it passes on the best rather than the habitual. The best rather than the habitual. Did you hear me?
The result is, to be beautifully able to speak to people who, by our example, will try to do things better and take more difficult risks as readers. We have those people. But no, they're not growing according to a constantly accelerating profitability margin. That margin is erroneous. No publisher has ever enjoyed it. It doesn't exist. You might be able to escalate things that way with a new technology like the web, where first you have to get people to buy the computer, then try the software, then convince their neighbors that they need a computer. That's the way television grew in America, and that's the way the web is growing. It just doesn't happen to be the way books grow, or the way print media grows. We have to start reminding people that there's a fallacy about this. We need to do better as a culture in terms of literacy and we need to combat illiteracy. That can be a growth figure we aspire toward. But the number of readers will stay stable over a given 20-year period. What we have to understand is that it's not shrinking, and the better the readers are, the better the teachers will be in the classroom.
When I was in seventh and eighth grade, there was junk being read in school readers. And then — who knows why? — my teacher, Mrs. Willenberg, read us T.S. Eliot's “Macavity”, and I think I had an ear for what is real. I said, “Wow. 'Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity. He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.” I asked if I could borrow that book, not the one of “jump, dog, jump” and “go, dog, go.” If we read well, our teachers teach better. If they read better books, they share them with the seven-year-olds, the eight-year-olds, the fourth-graders, and suddenly, yeah, if all the adults who talk to you are talking in better words and funnier language and making you thrilled to have years, that's what we want in our schools. That's what we're responsible for at our grassroots behind a radio microphone.
I take it, then, that you would want Bookworm to be, metaphorically speaking, that teacher you latch onto. I'm sure the show has played that role for certain listeners; they'll tune in just scanning through the dial and they'll find you talking to an author they hadn't heard of. That leads them down a different life path. I'm sure it's happened. I do imagine you hear from listeners who say that.
I want to say something contradictory to that. Often as not, although I'm Mr. Sweetheart, my author may be Dennis Cooper, famous for transgressive literature. Or maybe June Jordan, whose poetry anthology she handed out on the streets of San Francisco to people she considered to be quite radical. I believe that literature is a humanizing mechanism, but it expresses all kinds of things that we are afraid of, that we think are inhuman. It has access to the unconscious, where all sorts of primitive urges reside, and I think it's important that it does.
From literature which comes from primary process, everyone knows what Freud said, even if we don't know Freud said it: we deal at all times with civilization, which is a process of refinement, and its discontents, which is part of the primitive urges that are very violent, that have to do with what you feel you need and what you don't have. The process of education is the process of transforming the raw to the cooked, and what we see on our streets nowadays, who can doubt that the culture needs and wants its primitivism? It's full of unsatisfied urges. It's full of brandings and stripings, tattooings and piercings. These are all expressions of the tribal and the primitive, and they are the index to the extent of how much we've lost of the cultivated, of the transformation into the beautiful and the refined.
This is the constant war that the unconscious wages in each one of us every day, but right now, in our country — and maybe even globally — we're seeing a fear of what human education can to and a retreat, to my mind, into the primitive and its vocabulary of fear, of terror, of physicality that may be brutal. Yes, yes, everything needs access to articulation, and I want the brutal to be heard as well on Bookworm, because without it the imagination is incomplete.
We've said so much about what reading can deliver to someone who reads and what the current state of reading is, but I wonder, since you're both a reading figure and a media figure, you're in the middle of these two currents, one of which says that reading is changing, the way people read is changing, what might happen to reading tomorrow? The other one says media's changing, who's going to be listening to what tomorrow? Who knows how one's going to get their radio two weeks from tomorrow? What does that vantage point provide you?
But Colin, we live, those of us who have to, on our intuition and our wits. Something led me into radio. There was a person involved, that was Ruth Seymour, the general manager of our station, but some intuitive thing said to me, “Take this. Follow this path.” What's happened on this path? What happened was that public radio, which had been very popular among older people who'd lived through the Vietnam war and the admirable coverage NPR had done in those days, but what were we going to do? That audience was getting older, and there didn't seem to be a new audience. Presto-changeo, the web, podcasting, downloading.
Suddenly, radio has a viability that it hasn't had since the golden age of radio, and it hasn't stopped. My audience keeps growing, as I understand it, and radio will too, as you're able to hear it on your iPhone or your iPod or connected at the same time to something else you're doing. People tell me that they listen to Bookworm on hikes, in their earphones, that they can do it while they're doing something at the computer. I think these things are just amazing. Those of us who found ourselves in radio saw what they had always said about radio, that it was a great, great vehicle for imagination, because you had to picture what was shown and said.
Now, we're not back yet in a great age of radio drama. No, we're not listening to our best writing being broadcast immediately on the radio before publication, but who knows that that won't happen? When I did a memorial show for David Foster Wallace and within a week there were so many people responded to it, I thought that because it wasn't on Bookworm itself, but just a special following that most unfortunate death, I though, “Who's gonna hear it?” But it was reviewed on the New Yorker blog, it was being talked upon through the blogosphere. You say, “Wow! Hey, I'm talking to someone. It's going out immediately.”
That's the other thing: people say young people aren't reading, but I keep encountering, through the blog, people reading more and more peculiar things than ever before. I go over to an art school and I'm pinch-hitting in someone's workshop and someone says to me, “I've been listening to Bookworm since I've been able to read.” In other words, if I've had someone's ears for 20 years, I think I've had an effect.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.