“There are thresholds or shelves where we go from having incremental change to systemic moments of transformation.”
In the ’90s, Sven Birkerts cautioned us about the impact of technology on reading with The Gutenberg Elegies. In 2017, we mute our iPhones to talk about his new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf Press). We dive into the impact of digital technology on perception and identity, but also get into the way life becomes a thematic puzzle in middle age, why he stepped down from his role directing the low-residency MFA program at Bennington, the joy of bringing his favorite writers in as instructors (and the ones he regrets not getting), the challenge of interviewing fiction writers, his big literary 0-fer and what I’m missing about Virginia Woolf, how he’s adapting to a year-long sabbatical and how he understands his writing life, what he’s learned editing the literary magazine AGNI, and why the prerequisite for anything he’s reading is that it has to be more interesting to him than whatever it is he’s vaguely brooding about. Give it a listen! And go buy his new essay collection, Changing the Subject!
“When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”
About our Guest
Sven Birkerts is the author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age and nine previous books, including The Other Walk: Essays, The Gutenberg Elegies, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, and My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. He recently stepped down as director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he also edits the journal AGNI based at Boston University. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and he’s on Twitter as svenbirkerts and Instagram as cyberbirk.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Birkerts’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Birkerts by me. It’s on my instagram.
“There’s no way to write about millennials without adopting a comic tone.”
I get over my insecurity about younger authors and talk with Tony Tulathmiutte about his debut novel, Private Citizens! We discuss his critique of the idea of voice-of-a-generation novels, the heavy and weird expectations of being an Asian-American writer, the impossibility of satire, what he got out of his years working in Silicon Valley, writing good bad sex scenes, and his discovery that Jonathan Franzen thinks he uses “overly interesting verbs”. Give it a listen! And go buy Private Citizens!
“I don’t think of writing as a therapeutic activity. It’s more like exhibitionist wallowing.”
“It’s not fair to castigate David Foster Wallace for the purposes to which other people put his writing.”
About our Guest
From tonytula.com: “I’ve written for The New York Times, VICE, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, N+1, Playboy, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. I come from the Pioneer Valley in the Bay State, and used to work in Silicon Valley in the Bay Area. For some reason I’ve received an O. Henry Award and a MacDowell Fellowship, and I appeared as a guest on Late Night with Seth Meyers. I work in New York.” His new novel is Private Citizens.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Tony’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Tulathimutte by me. It’s on my instagram.
“I always get asked, ‘Could you draw properly if you want to?’ Also, ‘Who writes your jokes?’ Oh, and, ‘Have you ever thought of doing something serious?'”
UK cartooning legend Posy Simmonds, MBE, author of Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe, joins the show for a charming conversation about her career as a “literary” cartoonist, her childhood in postwar Britain, where she was raised on American comics and Americana, the allure of London, her top methods of procrastination, why her characters occasionally get trampled by livestock, what the French word is for comics with too many word balloons, and more! Give it a listen!
“The eternal thing in Madame Bovary is what the French call ‘bovarisme’, being very dissatisfied with your lot, and wanting to change it. We see it all the time: ‘If I get a new nose or new tits, I’ll be someone different!'”
We also talk about seeing her work turned into movies, her regret at not being able to attend San Diego Comic-Con the years she was an invited guest (!), the challenges of transporting Madame Bovary into modern-day France, working in serial format in The Guardian where she drew “giraffe comics”, and more, so go listen!
We talk about some books and comics in this episode. Here’s a list of them:
- Tamara Drewe – Posy Simmonds
- Gemma Bovery – Posy Simmonds
- True Love – Posy Simmonds
- Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
- Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
- Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic – Alison Bechdel
- Ethel and Ernest: A True Story – Raymond Briggs
- Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
- Rabbit, Run – John Updike
- The Centaur – John Updike
About our Guest
Posy Simmonds was born in 1945 and brought up near Cookham in Berkshire, England. She studied French (briefly) at The Sorbonne and graphic design at Central St Martins, London. While trying to find work as a cartoonist, she was a dog-walker, a cleaner, a governess, and sold Pyrex in Harrods. Her first commission was in The Times in 1968 – 5 tiny illustrations about loft insulation.
She is best known for the strip cartoons and serials that were published in The Guardian and the books that derive from them. These include Mrs Weber’s Diary, True Love, Literary Life and the graphic novels, Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe. Tamara Drewe was an Essentiel d’Angoulême in 2008, and won the Prix Des Critiques. Both novels have been made into feature films: Tamara Drewe, directed by Stephen Frears in 2010 and Gemma Bovery, directed by Anne Fontaine in 2014.
Posy has also written and drawn several books for children which include Baker Cat, and Fred, whose film version was nominated for an Oscar in 1996. Her work has been shown in exhibitions organised by the Arts Council and British Council, and in 2012 she had a retrospective exhibition at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre in Brussels. She is married and lives in London and is currently working on another novel.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at Ms. Simmonds’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photos of Ms. Simmonds by me.
With the recent release of The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories by Bruce Jay Friedman (and this fantastic review of it by Adam Kirsch), I thought it would be a good idea to get together a list of new books from past guests of the podcast. Enjoy, and remember: there are plenty of ways you can follow The Virtual Memories Show!
- Eva Brann – Then & Now: The World’s Center and the Soul’s Demesne – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Jessa Crispin – The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Paul Di Filippo – A Palazzo in the Stars: Science Fiction Stories – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Michael Dirda – Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Bruce Jay Friedman – The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- David Gates – A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Craig Gidney – Skin Deep Magic: Short Fiction – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Rachel Hadas – Talking To The Dead – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Nancy Hightower – The Acolyte – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Clive James – Latest Readings – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Diana Renn – Blue Voyage – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Witold Rybczynski – Mysteries of the Mall: And Other Essays – Listen to our conversation • MP3
- Elizabeth Samet – Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers (Norton Anthology) – Listen to our conversation • MP3
“I’d rather do something that nobody else would do if I didn’t do it. That’s why I made TOON Books.”
Live from CXC! Designer, editor and publisher Francoise Mouly joins the show to talk about 20+ years of New Yorker covers, launching TOON Books and cultivating a love for print, the pros and cons of going viral, the changing definitions of what’s offensive (and the time she got hauled into a meeting with an Arab Anti-Defamation League), the notion that comics are the gateway drug for reading, and more! (Sorry, no talk about her time with RAW magazine, since she and her husband, Art Spiegelman were interviewed about that later at the festival.) This episode is part of our Cartoon Crossroads Columbus series of live podcasts. Give it a listen!
“The cover of The New Yorker is where the artists have a voice, on a par with the prose authors.”
We also talk about Charlie Hebdo, the historical arc of gay marriage covers, the contrasts of her multimodal education in France with the American model, which comics she started her kids off with, how she deals with the moving target of diversity, the evolution of women in the comics scene, and why kids are a fantastic audience. Go listen!
“There are some topics the media won’t touch with the same willingness. . . . It would be more interesting if there wasn’t such jitteriness.”
- CXC Live: Dylan Horrocks
- CXC Live: Derf Backderf
- CXC Live: Bill Griffith
- Lorenzo Mattotti
- Ivan Brunetti
About our Guest
Françoise Mouly is the publisher and Editorial Director of TOON Books, which she launched in 2008. She joined The New Yorker as art editor in 1993. Ms. Mouly has been responsible for more than 1000 covers during her tenure at The New Yorker. The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) has chosen many of Ms. Mouly’s images as “best cover of the year.” In 2012, for the publication of “Les Dessous du New Yorker” by Editions de La Martinière, Galerie Martel in Paris presented “New Yorker Covers,” an exhibit of artwork by Mouly and seventeen other artists. Starting in 1980, Ms. Mouly was the founder, publisher, designer and co-editor with her collaborator and husband, cartoonist Art Spiegelman, of the pioneering comics anthology RAW, where Spiegelman’s MAUS was first published. In 1998, after looking for material to help her two children become readers, Ms. Mouly established a RAW Junior division, to publish first the Little Lit collection of comics with HarperCollins, then The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics with Abrams, and launched the TOON Books imprint.
Born in Paris, Françoise moved to New York in 1974. She was named Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. Among the many honors she has received are an honorary Doctorate from Pratt Institute, Gold and Silver medals as well as the Richard Gangel Art Director Award from the Society of Illustrators, and France’s highest honor, the Legion of Honour. She and her husband live in Manhattan.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the Cultural Arts Center in Columbus, OH during Cartoon Crossroads Columbus in October 2015 on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of me & Ms. Mouly by Amy Roth. Sad to say I can’t find a credit for the photo of Ms. Mouly at the top of the page.
“I’m now older than the two most important men in my life were when they died: my father and James Merrill.”
The great poet, essayist, librettist and bon vivant J.D. McClatchy (Sandy, to his friends) joins the show to talk about outliving his idols, adapting my favorite novel (The Leopard!) to opera, having his life changed by a course with Harold Bloom, collecting letters from the likes of Proust and Housman, and marrying Chip Kidd! We also get into his friendship with James Merrill, pop culture’s triumph over high culture, his genetic inability to read comics, why he loathed Ezra Pound as a person and as an artist, how sexual politics has replaced social politics, the experience of teaching the first gay literature course at Yale in 1978 (and getting dropped from the university because of it), how a serious poet writes for the dead, not the living, and more! Give it a listen!
“I think the problem of all young poets — which I shared — was that at the age of 20, 25, I didn’t have anything to write about.”
We also talk about the unique challenges of his various genres (poetry, prose, libretti), the benefits of a career in academia, the notion that the great treasures of western civilization have created us and are needed to sustain us, the true stakes of writing poetry, his commonplace book (being published next spring), his Ouija experience with Anne Sexton, sailing the Atlantic for his 70th birthday, how three Ring cycles equals one San Diego Comic-Con, and why it took him four years to begin writing in a new home. This one’s a great conversation, so go listen!
“The experience of watching kids grow up imaginatively, and grow out of themselves — rather than into themselves — in the first shedding of a false skin, is something I take very seriously in my responsibility as a teacher.”
We mention a few books in this episode. Here they are:
- American Writers at Home – J.D. McClatchy, Erica Lennard
- The Leopard – Giuseppe Lampedusa
- James Merrill: Life and Art – Langdon Hammer
- The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime – Harold Bloom
- Braving the Elements – James Merrill
- The Changing Light at Sandover – James Merrill
- The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
- The Honorary Consul – Graham Greene
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
- Sentenced to Life – Clive James
- Latest Readings – Clive James
Also, during the episode I promised to show you the official image of What Your Host Feels Like When He’s Reading Poetry, as illustrated by Roger Langridge. Whoomp, here it is:
About our Guest
J.D. McClatchy is the author Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 2014), as well as seven previous collections of poetry and of three collections of prose. He has edited numerous other books, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, and has written a number of opera libretti that have been performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, and elsewhere. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where he served as president from 2009 to 2012. McClatchy teaches at Yale University and is the editor of the Yale Review.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. McClatchy’s Stonington, CT home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. B/W photo of Mr. McClatchy by Geoff Spears; color photo by me.
“I enjoy going back to Lorain, Ohio because I’m reminded that the world of Washington and the East Coast literary establishment is a very narrow, special one that’s parochial in its own way. The rest of the world has other concerns: family, job and life in general. Whereas we get all up in arms about very minor things.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer Michael Dirda rejoins the show to talk about his new collection, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (Pegasus Books). We discuss the importance of reading for pleasure, the difference between book-collecting and shopping, the role of the book reviewer (and how it differs from that of the critic), a recent negative review he didn’t want to write, why he doesn’t read reviews of his work, what his mother said when he won the Pulitzer Prize, and more! Give it a listen!
“The books that you don’t grasp immediately, the ones that leave you off-kilter . . . those are often the books that really last, and matter.”
Our first three-time guest also talks about the democratization of book reviewing, the problems of storing books in his basement, what he wants an author to think upon reading his book review of a book, his affinity for Clive James’ work, whether his reviews have a coded autobiographical element to them, how the limitations of the book review form shaped his style, why he disagrees with John Clute’s philosophy on spoilers, and more!
We talk about a lot of books in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):
- Little Big Man – Thomas Berger
- Suspects – Thomas Berger
- The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination – Daniel Boorstin
- The Discoverers – Daniel Boorstin
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
- The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus – Cyril Connolly
- The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin
- Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books – Michael Dirda
- Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments – Michael Dirda
- On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling – Michael Dirda
- The Robe – Lloyd C. Douglas
- The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature, Revised and Expanded – Clifton Fadiman
- Party of One – Clifton Fadiman
- Enter Conversing – Clifton Fadiman
- The Recognitions – William Gaddis
- Muse: A novel – Jonathan Galassi
- The Green Carnation – Robert Hichens
- The Odyssey – Homer
- Appleby’s End – Michael Innes
- Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts – Clive James
- Kim – Rudyard Kipling
- Zorba the Greek – Nikos Kazantzakis
- Dazzle – Judith Krantz
- V R Lang: Poems & Plays with a Memoir – Alison Lurie
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds – Charles Mackay
- Bright Lights, Big City – Jay McInerney
- The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy
- Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
- Burning the Days: Recollection – James Salter
- Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps
- Anathem – Neal Stephenson
- Walden – Thoreau
- Stoner – John Williams
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser
About our Guest
Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post, and he received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir, An Open Book: Chapters fom a Reader’s Life, and of four previous collections of essays: Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, Bound to Please, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, and Classics for Pleasure, in addition to his newest collection, Browsings. His previous book, On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, received a 2012 Edgar Award for best critical/biographical work of the year. Michael Dirda graduated with Highest Honors in English from Oberlin College and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell University. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the online Barnes & Noble Review, The American Spectator, and several other periodicals, as well as a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.
Credits: This episode’s music is Ah, Putrefaction by Jaristo, from Hans Zimmer’s film music for Sherlock Holmes. The conversation was recorded at the Boston Marriott Burlington on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Dirda by me.
“I should have led a more balanced life, but that’s easy to say at the end of things. When you’re caught up in what you’re doing, it’s very hard to be reasonable. And art isn’t really made out being reasonable.”
Clive James was diagnosed with leukemia and emphysema several years ago, but the poet, essayist, memoirist, novelist, TV host, and charter member of the Virtual Memories Show Dream List hasn’t let his ailments silence him. He joins us for a wide-ranging conversation about poetry, mortality, binge-watching Veronica Mars, writing Cultural Amnesia (one of my favorite books), being Australian despite 50 years in the UK, how his showbiz career hurt (and helped) his literary legacy, and a lot more. We talk about his two new books — Poetry Notebook (Liveright) and Sentenced To Life (Picador, UK only) — and the ones he’s working on, and how he faced two choices after his diagnoses: lie back on a couch, admire himself for his achievements, and sign off; or go on as if he had forever. Give it a listen!
“All that poetry comes in handy when you lie there, contemplating the end. The question is why: Why when your body is about to come apart, is there such appeal in reading such highly organized argument and imagery?”
We get into the role of culture, the future of the Middle East, his first encounter with a Jew, the books he made a priority of when he realized his time was short, why it’s okay for actors to be shallow, and how he wrote a critique of Daniel Goldhagen while dressed as a mariachi singer for a TV show in Mexico.
“It’s possible to say that if I’d just concentrated on my literary activities [instead of working on TV], I’d have had a less complicated reputation. The question never would have arisen: Is he serious enough to write seriously?”
We talked a lot of books in this one. Here’s a list:
- Poetry Notebook – Clive James
- Unreliable Memoirs – Clive James
- Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts – Clive James
- Inside The Whale – George Orwell
- Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection – Montaigne
- La Ronde (Modern Plays) – Arthur Shnitzler
- Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong – Robert Bryce
- Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
- Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust – Daniel Goldhagen
- Latest Readings – Clive James
- The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin
- Dictionnaire Egoiste Litterature Francaise (French Edition) – Charles Dantzig
- Chess Story – Stefan Zweig
- Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig
- The Hard Problem – Tom Stoppard
- Arcadia: A Play – Tom Stoppard
About our Guest
Born in Australia, Clive James lives in Cambridge, England. He is the author of Unreliable Memoirs; a volume of selected poems, Opal Sunset; the best-selling Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts; and the translator of The Divine Comedy by Dante. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. He is an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). You can find a longer version of his bio at his site.
Credits: This episode’s music is El Cholulo by Tosca Tango Orchestra. The conversation was recorded at Mr. James’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. James by me.
“It’s a cliche to say that the whole of medieval civilization is there in one book, but that’s true, and you get to understand that more and more as you read it.”
Scholar Prue Shaw joins the show to discuss Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity (Liveright Press). We talk about our favorite parts of the Dante’s Commedia, the poem’s transformation for her over the decades, Dante’s challenge of expressing the inexpressible (especially in Paradiso), the fate of Jews in Dante’s afterworld, and the reasons why we all — poets and non-poets, believers and non-believers — should be reading Dante. Give it a listen!
“I think it’s very indicative that our strongest word of disapprobation in the present moment is ‘inappropriate’. We don’t say anything is wrong or bad, but inappropriate.”
We also talk about readers’ reticence toward starting the Commedia, why the Paradiso is the most difficult of the three books, the strange role of Ulysses in the poem, Dante’s “mercy rule,” why she chose the structure and themes for Reading Dante, the perfect epigraph to her book, which she discovered too late for inclusion, and why I need to get to the Uffizi!
About our Guest
Prue Shaw is Emeritus Reader in Italian Studies at University College London, and the editor of the edizione nationale of Dante’s Monarchia and of a digital edition of the Commedia. Her latest book is Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity (Liveright Press). She lives in Cambridge, England. You can find her extensive bio at her site.
Credits: This episode’s music is Hell by Squirrel Nut Zippers. The conversation was recorded at Ms. Shaw’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Ms. Shaw by me.