Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Bookclub

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Vital stats:
Format: moderated conversations between an author and an audience
Episode duration: ~30m (except when Douglas Adams comes on
Frequency: monthly

Despite having grown up in America, I’ve cultivated an overwhelmingly British, or at least British Empire, roster of favorite writers: Anthony Lane, Geoff Dyer, Pico Iyer, Clive James, Ian Buruma, Jan Morris — the list keeps unfurling, mostly on the other side of the Atlantic. (Even those who seem potentially American, like Douglas Coupland, usually turn out to come from fish-nor-fowl places like Canada.) Sometimes I’ll find my own readers — those, in any case, who’ve never heard me on a podcast — surprised at my lack of an English accent. (Not that they can then get a fix on the oddly placeless one I do have.) Should I put my attraction to U.K. letters down to my failure to master American English, or did too much time spent among all these Brits — natives, transplants, sons of former possessions — cause that failure? Either way, a reader like me can’t help but feast upon a show like BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub [RSS] [iTunes], which offers a robust archive of discussions with many of these very writers.

James and Morris turn up, anyway, as does Coupland. So, too, do an array of British men and women of letters whom I’ve barely read yet have always relished hearing speak: a Martin Amis, say, or a David Mitchell, or a Stephen Fry. Ironically, my serious reading career began when, as a youngster, I got into crime novelist Elmore Leonard and, a bit later, political humorist P.J. O’Rourke, two names I imagine strike reading Brits as among the most American wordsmiths alive. Leonard got his start with Westerns and went on to chronicle the sunnily sordid lives of wisecracking Florida lowlifes; P.J. O’Rourke dares simultaneously to have a functioning wit and vote Republican. They discuss these matters and others with Bookclub host James Naughtie and select audiences of twenty or so readers on their respective episodes or the program. Though most certainly of Britain, the broadcast hardly limits itself to Britain.

We have here, as I more broadly call it, a festival of articulateness. This extends to those sitting below the stage, the “intimate group of readers” who come armed with questions for the author of the month. These they ask, play into stereotypes though it may, in what mostly sound like the watery, faintly offended voices of middle-aged, middle-class womanhood. But know, dear England, that I mean no offense by this. Their equivalents in the states would sound even worse: louder, gravely but obscurely offended, scattering sentence fragments with vain insistence. America has a problem with question quality at literary Q&As; people here would rather ramble, make a declaration of self, or confront the author with half-baked ideas and unbaked lawsuits. Bookclub, perhaps due to a rigorous selection process, suffers no such problem, and can thus devote most of its half-hour, after a handful of quickly incisive opening questions from Naughtie, to a moderated dialogue between author and audience.

Listen to an episode with a novelist like Amis, Julian Barnes, or David Lodge, and you listen in on one more moment in a satisfyingly ongoing relationship between a country and its luminaries. Despite their disagreements — which, given the standard dash of emotional distance, some of these English writers love engaging in — they seem to speak on the same level, to be, no pun intended; on the same page. The Americans come in looking, if not like sideshow attractions, then like rougher-hewn curiosities. Jonathan Franzen and Amy Tan exhibit what I would call our national brand of amiably supercilious discomfort. O’Rourke and Leonard relax into an aw-shucks, brass-tacks attitude toward their craft — for a craft is what they clearly consider it — that must reassure anyone with certain ideas about how they like their Yanks.

Despite long prostrating myself before such eminent tri-named users of American English as John Jeremiah Sullivan and David Foster Wallace — the former I hope to one day hear on this show; the latter, alas, I never will — I doubt I’ll ever attain such mastery myself. Hearing the linguistic contrast between American writers and British broadcasters helps, but I mainly learn other useful lessons about writing from the candidness Bookclub stirs in its guests (the stealthily reserved Franzens of the world notwithstanding). This goes even though most of them write fiction, which I don’t. And if you don’t write at all, the show still has much to teach you about how best to ask about books, to chat about books, and to cast into words your reactions about books. “Boy, Colin,” a friend recently told me, “you really do view the world through the lens of books.” Unable to imagine any other lens, I’d never before considered whether I did or not. If you’re anything like me, this sort of program comes less as an entertaining sound-waves-through-earphones diversion about an entertaining ink-on-paper diversion than as an object lesson in how to consider and discuss reality itself.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]