“We try to find things that move the walls in our brain about what fiction and poetry can do.”
New Directions publisher Barbara Epler joins the show to talk about her accidental career, the pros and cons of New Directions’ size, the Moneyball aspect of publishing works in translation, surviving a Nobel crush, the importance of secondary rights, the language she most wishes she could read, the novel she promises never to write, the book whose success surprised her the most, where WG Sebald’s work might have gone, and more! This is part of our Festival Neue Literatur series; Barbara is the 2017 recipient of the FNL’s Friedrich Ulfers Prize! Give it a listen!
“We have to make money, but we don’t do anything that overtly looks like it makes money.”
“James Laughlin believed that one of the most important streams of income for New Directions was to get the best poets of the generation who were working in an experimental mode, because of the secondary rights.”
About our Guest
Barbara Epler started working at New Directions after graduating from Harvard in 1984, and is now the publisher. The writers Epler has published include such international luminaries as W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, László Krasznahorkai, Robert Walser, Clarice Lispector, Yoko Tawada, César Aira, Inger Christensen, Franz Kafka, Yoel Hoffmann, Bei Dao, Tomas Tranströmer, Jenny Erpenback, Veza Canetti, Fleur Jaeggy, Raduan Nassar, Joseph Roth, Takashi Hiraide, Alexander Kluge, and Antonio Tabucchi. She has worked with some of the world’s most gifted translators and has served as a judge for the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Awards. In 2015, Poets & Writers awarded Epler their Editor’s Prize and in 2016 Words Without Borders gave her the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature.
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 the New Directions offices 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 Ms. Epler by me. It’s on my instagram.
“If virtue can be taught, it’s only by learning to ask the types of questions that make you a thoughtful person.”
My two-year term at St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute was the most important part of my life. During my recent trip back to Annapolis, I sat down with outgoing president Christopher Nelson to talk about lessons learned during his 26-year tenure, the books that guided him to the college, the ones he returns to, and the ones that gave him the most trouble as an undergrad, what he’ll miss and what he hopes to do next, his key advice for his successor, and more! Give it a listen!
“Running an institution and reading a budget were second nature to me. . . . Being able to participate in the life of the college so I could make good and deep judgements about what’s important around here; that was going to come from spending time in the classroom and with the faculty.”
We also talk about the unique situation of being the only president in the college’s 300+ years who is also an alumnus, why math and philosophy are for the young, while big novels are for middle age, how he grew into The Aeneid, the use of literature in understanding Japanese morality, why he returns to Middlemarch every few years, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum (even if he can’t bring himself to drop something to make room for it), and a lot more! Give it a listen! (and become a supporter via Patreon or Paypal so you can check out the big list of all the books we talked about this episode!)
“The commodification of higher education — like the monetization of every good in life — is deeply disturbing. It’s certainly something that’s always been in America. You read de Tocqueville and you see that it’s part of the American spirit to do that.”
About our Guest
Christopher B. Nelson has been president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, since June 1991. He is an alumnus of St. John’s (B.A. 1970) and a graduate of the University of Utah College of Law (J.D. 1973), where he founded and directed the university’s student legal services program. He practiced law in Chicago for 18 years and was chairman of his law firm when he left the practice to take his current position at St. John’s College. Christopher Nelson is a national spokesperson for the liberal arts, participating actively in the national conversation about higher education. Frequently a panelist and speaker on state, regional, and national programs, he has addressed issues of institutional autonomy in the face of government regulatory intrusion and changes proposed in the accrediting system. His current focus is making clear the value of liberal education – in providing excellent grounding for career and professional development and, most importantly, for an open-minded pursuit of lifelong learning.
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 office of Christopher Nelson at the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. B/w photo of President Nelson by me. Photo of Annapolis campus by me.
“No one can be deeply affected by this course of study and not want to go beyond it. It gets you excited about ideas, questions and authors. To read one author is to lead you to another.”
How does a man go from being a ne’er-do-well in a Pennsylvania mining town to a tutor at St. John’s College? Peter Kalkavage joins the show to talk about his path to that Great Books institution, what he’s learned going into his 38th year as a tutor, how he fell in love with the college’s music program, what his study of Hegel taught him, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, and more! (Also: Iliad or Odyssey, which offsets the question of “Luther or Calvin?”)
“In my time here, the one change that has irked me the most has been the shift from Luther to Calvin in the sophomore seminar. There were understandable problems with Luther . . . on the other hand, he deals in a blunt and powerful way with questions of freedom, secular authority, and faith-vs.-works. Calvin seems too relentlessly negative and too obsessed with the question of predestination.”
We also discuss his upbringing, The Big Lebowski, the teacher who got him to turn himself around, his favorite area to teach, how Dante taught him the possibilities of poetry, the question of whether we’re ever mature enough to read the curriculum, and the recent move to rebrand St. John’s College.
“We have to be very careful not to present ourselves in what we think might be an attractive way which misrepresents what we most have to offer our students, the country and the world: our curriculum. That’s the most important thing. Not our location, not our extracurricular activities, but the program. ‘The following teachers are returning to St. John’s next year. . . .'”
About our Guest
Peter Kalkavage has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., since 1977. He is director of the St. John’s Chorus. Dr. Kalkavage is the author of The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and has produced translations of Plato’s Timaeus and Statesman for Focus Philosophical Library. He is also author of two texts that have been used in the St. John’s music program, On the Measurement of Tones and Elements: A Workbook for Freshman Music.
Credits: This episode’s music is the opening credits to Miller’s Crossing by Carter Burwell. The conversation was recorded in Peter Kalkavage’s office during the St. John’s College 2014 Piraeus seminar on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Peter Kalkavage by me.
Your humble(ish) host just made his annual Piraeus pilgrimage to St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, this time to participate in a four-day seminar about Moby Dick . . . and score a great interview! I managed to get legendary tutor Eva Brann (above) to take a break from her crazy schedule and sit down for a 45-minute conversation about the college’s Great Books program and how she’s seen it change (and stay the same) in her FIFTY-SEVEN YEARS at the school. We also talk about the value of a liberal arts education, the one novel she’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, the need professors have to profess (and why St. John’s has tutors instead of professors), her swoon for Odysseus, her desert island book, her one criterion for a great novel, where she sees the school going in the next fifty-seven years, the Dostoevsky-or-Tolstoy debate, and more, including a boatload of questions I solicited from alumni! It’s a fascinating conversation with one of the most learned people in the world.
And then Ian Kelley, a St. John’s student from 1993, talks about his experience at the college, what brought him there, what he learned about himself and the Great Books, and how his Annapolis experience influenced his decision to join the U.S. Navy. Ian’s a longtime pal and is the first guest to appear in the non-famous Virtual Memories Library (pictured, with dog, who occasionally sighs and grunts during the podcast).
About our Guests
Eva Brann has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD since 1957 and served as dean there from 1990 to 1997. Ms. Brann is the author of Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad, The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings, Open Secrets / Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul, Feeling Our Feelings: What Philosophers Think and People Know, Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations, and The Logos of Heraclitus, all of which are available from Paul Dry Books.
Ian Kelley is a proud 1997 graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, and an avid motorcyclist, traveler and reader. He trusts Gil Roth to keep him smart and honest. Ian and his wife, Jessica, live in Fallon, NV.
We previously interviewed St. John’s College tutors David Townsend and Tom May, so you should check those out! For more information about St. John’s College and the Great Books program, visit its site.
Credits: This episode’s music is Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. The conversation was recorded at the home of Eva Brann on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Ian Kelley was recorded at my home on a pair AT2020 mics feeding into the Zoom H4n. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 into the Zoom H4n. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of Eva Brann by me, photo of Ian Kelley and me by Amy Roth.
In my previous post, I decried some lame-ass attempts at infusing “literaryness” into an article that chronicled the decline of the New York Knicks. My complaint was that the writer’s story is compelling enough that it doesn’t require the trappings of middlebrowness-trying-to-prove-its-smartypantsness in order to please hip urban crowd.
But just because I lambasted the editor involved in those decisions, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m dropping my own high-brow snobbishness. In fact, Amy & I receive a whole spectrum of viewpoints, on line and in print. It ranges from. . . well —
— Hegel to Heigl!
The mag on the left is the official magazine of St. John’s College in Annapolis & Santa Fe. I attended graduate school for 2 years in Annapolis and, as I’ve written on numerous occasions (most recently/ramblingly here), it was the most important period of my life. What I learned there — including how to learn — informs every day of my life.
So I was overjoyed (I’m an easy mark, I know) to open the current issue and see an article from Laurence Berns, the first tutor I had in my first semester in the program, chronicling the process of putting together the graduate curriculum 40 years ago. The best part of “Why Didn’t We Know About These Books?” (a question from one of the early grad students), is Mr. Berns’ discussion of choosing which books to include in the program and when to get to them. There’s a funny passage about one tutor’s enthusiasm for the Theaetetus and the necessity of putting it after Hume and Kant, but I think this section sums up the program’s geeky, graceful passion and the love of life and learning that I found during my time in Annapolis:
Michael Ossorgin, tutor, ordained Russian Orthodox priest, Dostoyevsky expert, and musician, was perhaps the most sweetly intelligent man I have ever known. Some days after I had shown him my Literature selections, he called to invite me to lunch. He had developed a better idea for that sequence, but he would never say that.
As soon as we were seated for lunch he turned to me and said, “Larry, I think all of human life can be understood in terms of the Iliad and the Odyssey.” And then for about two hours he led me in a wonderful discussion about how the Iliad and the Odyssey clarified the foundations of human life, at the end of which I asked him if he would redraw the literature sequence to extend the time for the Iliad and the Odyssey.
He did. Of course, that’s the first section that I studied under Mr. Berns when I arrived in Annapolis.
(You can download a PDF of the Winter 2008 magazine over at the St. John’s publications page or directly from my site. It’s about 1.3mb, and Mr. Berns’ piece starts on page 26 of the PDF. There’s also a neat piece on Hegel (of course) by Peter Kalkavage, another tutor who had a profound influence on me. I’ll write more about that topic later, since it involves re-typing a 15-page essay of his. You should go buy his new book, The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. And let me know if any of you are interested in starting an online reading group/discussion of that Phenomenology, since I never did read it while I was at St. John’s.)