“How do you learn things? How do you acquire the patience to admit when you don’t know things? I think those are really important things for an Army officer to know.”
Elizabeth D. Samet has been a professor of English at West Point since 1997. We talk about the tension between education and training at the military academy, the importance of books to soldiers and officers serving overseas, learning West Point’s unique argot, preparing her students to be unprepared, trying (and failing) to convince Robert Fagles that Hector is the moral center of the Iliad, why she doesn’t teach Henry V to plebes, how not to get caught up in the tyranny of relevance, why she balked at learning the fine art of parachuting, and more! Give it a listen!
“The question I’m endlessly fascinated with is, what do we call war and what do we call peace and can we draw these nice distinctions? It seems to me right now that we can’t.”
NOTE: The opinions Elizabeth Samet expresses in this interview are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of West Point, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
We also talk about teaching students who are both future Army officers and 18-year-old kids, how West Point and the student body changed after 9/11, her new anthology (Leadership) and her first two books (Soldier’s Heart and No Man’s Land), her house-on-fire list of books to save, her quarrel with Plato, and her adoration of Simeon’s Maigret novels. Bonus: I tell a long, awful and emotional story from last weekend (it starts around the 75:00 mark, so feel free to stop long before that).
“I have this idea about Plato: no one loves Plato who does not already think himself a guardian.”
We talk about a lot of 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):
- Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point – Elizabeth Samet
- No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America – Elizabeth Samet
- Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers – Elizabeth Samet
- An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Vol. One of the Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson
- The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Vol. Two of the Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson
- The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, Vol. Three of the Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
- Bleak House – Charles Dickens
- Middlemarch – George Eliot
- Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant / Selected Letters, 1839-1865 – Ulysses S. Grant
- Everything Flows – Vassily Grossman
- Life and Fate – Vassily Grossman
- Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
- The Iliad – Homer (tr. Fagles)
- The Odyssey – Homer (tr. Fagles)
- Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery – Henry Marsh
- Black Swan Green – David Mitchell
- The Complete Works – Montaigne
- Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, Vol. 1 – Plutarch
- Hamlet – Shakespeare
- King Richard II – Shakespeare
- War and Peace – Tolstoy
- Anna Karenina – Tolstoy
- Hadji Murat – Tolstoy
- The Aeneid – Virgil (tr. Fagles)
- Sword of Honor – Evelyn Waugh
About our Guest
Elizabeth D. Samet is the author of No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (FSG). Her first book, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (Picador), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest and was named one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. Samet’s work has appeared in various publications, including the The New York Times, The New Republic, and Bloomberg View. She is also the editor of Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, which is out this month from Norton. Samet won the 2012 Hiett Prize in the Humanities and is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a professor of English at West Point.
Credits: This episode’s music is On, Brave Old Army Team by West Point Marching Band. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Samet’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 Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Formal photo of Prof. Samet by Bachrach; bookshelf photo of Prof. Samet by me.
“Churchill was one of the last members of the Aesthetic Movement, except he applied his aestheticism to war.”
Professor Jonathan Rose joins the show to talk about his new book, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (Yale University Press). It’s a fascinating work about the books and plays that influenced one of the 20th century’s greatest statesmen, drawing connections from Churchill’s literary interests (and aspirations) to his policy decisions. Prof. Rose tells us about the most surprising literary influence he discovered, Churchill’s roots in Victorian melodrama, his love of the coup de theatre, his no-brow approach to art, how Hitler was like a photo-negative of Churchill, and why a politician like him would never survive in today’s party-line system.
“Just as Oscar Wilde was a public performer who created a persona, I think Churchill did something very similar in his life. His greatest creation was Winston Churchill. It was his greatest work of art.”
Along the way, Prof. Rose also tells us about the one book he wishes Churchill had read, why Churchill would love the internet, why so many politicians cite him as an influence but fail to live up to his example, what it’s like teaching history to students who weren’t alive during the Cold War, and why we need more literary biographies of political figures (at least, for those who read).
About our Guest
Jonathan Rose is William R. Kenan Professor of History at Drew University. He was the founding president of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and he is coeditor of that organization’s journal, Book History. His book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes: Second Edition won the Longman-History Today Historical Book of the Year Prize, the American Philosophical Society Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, the British Council Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies, the SHARP Book History Prize, and the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Book Prize. It was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Award and the British Academy Book Prize, and named a Book of the Year by the Economist magazine. His other publications include The Edwardian Temperament, 1895-1919, The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation (Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book), and A Companion to the History of the Book (with Simon Eliot). His latest book is The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (Yale University Press).
Credits: This episode’s music is Mr. Churchill Says by The Kinks (duh). The conversation was recorded at Mr. Rose’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into my brand-new Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Prof. Rose by me.
Maybe next week’s Unrequired Reading will be an hour-long special on ESPN, but for now, all you get is this silly-ass blog.