Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Bookworm"

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Certain Max Funsters unfamiliar with the program under discussion may remember it from an evocative verbal picture painted by Jordan on one episode of JJGO!. The Boy Detective described driving around L.A. on production assistant assignments, listening to KCRW, when, all of a sudden, a midcentury TV children's song about books would start up. An aggressively earnest voice would then break through the tinkly strains, announcing that the day's book "revolves around themes of sexual molestation in 19th-century Asia." Jokes about 19th-century molestation promptly followed.

The program's theme song is "You Are a Human Animal", originally from the Mickey Mouse Club. (That itself counts as an achievement, considering the hellish usage issues surrounding anything remotely Disney-connected.) The earnest voice belongs to host and well-known acute reader Michael Silverblatt. The show is Bookworm [iTunes link], a weekly one-on-one literary discussion that's just about the finest novel-centric forum on all of public radio. And like all smart public radio shows, it's a podcast too.

We all had a good laugh at Jordan's impression of the program, but to associate Bookworm only with 19th-century molestation would be a shame indeed. It's about all kinds of things, within the context of contemporary fiction; Silverblatt always makes sure to widen the discussion well beyond the scope of the text alone. His way of thinking about books is unusual, but it's delightfully conducive to mentally stimulating radio conversation. As with some of the works he discusses, it may be better to quote directly than to attempt summary or paraphrase. Thus, to choose one of Silverblatt's questions at random, here's his opening salvo in dialogue with Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles [MP3]:

The book came as a complete surprise to me because I read that it was about a teacher in a middle school and I thought, yes, I do like novels about teachers. The inevitable names come up: Ms. Jean Brodie or Mr. Chips or the woman in the short story by Charles Baxter, a story called "Gryphon", or all kinds of teachers, but this is completely different. What you forget when you're in high school, reading about Ms. Jean Brodie or Mr. Chips, is that they seem ancient, tottering. But an actual teacher in a middle school is a young woman who identifies more with her students, perhaps, than with the other teachers — certainly than with the other, older, seasoned teachers — and it feels absolutely mysterious and terrifying to her to find herself at what feels like the rest of her life teaching in a school and identifying with the children more than with the colleagues and wondering what life is like. So what Ms. Hempel is is in a period of transition, and that's what teaching is seen to be in this book. How did you come to write a novel about a teacher?

As a bigtime enthusiast of the interview form and a broadcaster of interviews himself, your Podthinker bows down before that question. Bear in mind that, even though reading a transcription such as the above might give a feeling of scriptedness, that's not at all the case in the actual show. Silverblatt's clearly formulating his questions as he speaks them, not just rattling them off from a sheet. (Or at least, if he is reading off a sheet, one can only conclude that he's a Patrick Stewart-tier actor as well.) Just to drive this point into the ground, here's another randomly-selected first question, this time from his conversation with the impulsively adventurous (or adventurously impulsive) William T. Vollmann about his Riding Toward Everywhere [stream]:

This is a book about train-hopping, and it kind of amazes me: I've been reading reviews of this book and the reviewers seem not to notice that the very senteces of the book are like a train-hopping experience. They speed up, they slow down, they go unpredictable places, they take you places where you hadn't expected to go; tracks meet and shift and so sentences go off in the opposite direction from the one in which they started and I wanted to talk to you about that style, because it is very different than the more naturalistic style of your recent work.

So, yes, Silverblatt is god, literary-interviewily speaking. This sort of question aesthetic could, given time, easily start coming off as simply more-in-depth-than-thou, but what stops things from reaching that unsavory point is the man's raw enthusiasm. In every interview, Silverblatt's unbridled love for literature and the reading of it, his unquenchable thirst for the sweet juices to be wrung from a novel's pages, shines through. Books are his passion, authors his friends. Were it any other way, could he have hosted the show for two decades straight?

It is thus with a heavy heart that your Podthinker announces that this interview style doesn't feel fully compatible with the stubby thirty-minute length. If ever a host was born for the long form, it's Silverblatt — and certainly the uncommonly intimate atmosphere of his show could sustain any runtime — but alas, to so many watch-tapping program directors out there, a mere half an hour is long form. Free Bookworm from its temporal chains; free it now.

Vital stats:
Format: literary interviews
Running since: 1989
Duration: ~30m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: ten weeks only, but all streamable

[Podthinker Colin Marshall receives e-mails at colinjmarshall at gmail, but opens only earnest ones. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]