“I’m an enthusiast. I think that’s why I was a good editor. I fall in love with things and I get very enthusiastic and I boost them. Now I’m a Latin enthusiast.”
Why did former publisher and book editor Ann Patty start studying Latin at age 58? Find out in our conversation about her book, Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin (Viking). We talk about her deep dive into a dead language, the “Living Latinist” revival, her unceremonious exit from the NY publishing world, the terror of the blank page, the perils of groupthink, how her pursuit of Latin reconciled her to the memory of her mother, and more! Give it a listen! And go buy Living with a Dead Language!
“This is going to sound grandiose, but I’m going to say it: I identified with Aeneas because I had to find a new homeland just like he did. My homeland was the publishing world and I was exiled.”
We also talk about where mainstream book publishing has gone wrong, what it was like to be the oldest student in the room by 40 years, how her experience as a publisher and editor helped and hurt her as a first-time author, how Abigail Thomas tricked her into writing a book, the benefits of inflection, her new career goal of Girl Latin Reporter, and more! Give it a listen! And become a patron of this podcast via Patreon or Paypal to get access to bonus conversation with Ann and a big ol’ list of all the books we talked about.
“Editors have been disempowered in favor of groupthink, and there’s nothing more horrible than groupthink. Any book I was ever successful with would not have been bought if it had been subject to groupthink. I include Life of Pi.”
About our Guest
Ann Patty worked in New York trade publishing for more than 30 years. She was the founder and publisher of The Poseidon Press and an executive editor at Crown Publishers and Harcourt. Her first discovery as an editor was V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic. Other highlights of her career include the US hardcover debuts of: George R. R. Martin, Graham Swift, Mary Gaitskill, Patrick McGrath, Clive Barker, Frank Zappa, Michael Moore, Siri Hustvedt, and Kristin Hannah. She was the editor of Steven Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler, and Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi. In 2008 she became a freelance editor and began studying Latin, which she continues to do. She teaches Latin to teenagers at her local library in Red Hook, New York. Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin is her first memoir.
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 Ann’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 enCORE 200 Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Ann by me.
“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.
“I have a private test for whether I’m an individual person or whether I’m part of the culture: I go to the supermarket and I look at the supermarket weeklies, and if I recognize the names, then I’m not a person, I’m a product of collective culture.”
Professor Edward Mendelson joins the show to talk about his new book, Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers (New York Review Books), which profiles Lionel Triling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, WH Auden, Frank O’Hara. We discuss the role of individuals in mass culture, the intellectual’s temptation to be a leader, the outdated figure of the Beloved Professor, Orwell’s misinterpretation of Auden, the writer he was terrified to meet, the failures of identity politics, the purpose of Columbia University’s Core Curriculum, his lack of nostalgia for the era of public intellectuals, the way certain books need a year off from teaching in order to recharge, and more. Give it a listen!
“All these writers were tempted by the way they were taken seriously.”
We also talk about why he hates one of my favorite novels, why he agrees with my take on Achilles’ uncanniness in the Iliad, why professors think students are getting dumber year after year, how the economic collapse of the ’70s led to improved colleges across the country, why he thinks Stoner is a study in self-pity, and more! Go listen!
About our Guest
At Columbia since 1981, Professor Edward Mendelson has also taught at Yale and Harvard. A recipient of American Council of Learned Societies, NEH, and Guggenheim fellowships, he is chiefly interested in 19th-and 20th-century literature, formal and social aspects of poetry and narrative, and biographical criticism. He is Auden’s literary executor; his book Later Auden (1999) is a sequel to his Early Auden (1981). His book, The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, was published by Pantheon in 2006. His new book is Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers, from New York Review Books. He has edited a volume of essays on Thomas Pynchon and, with Michael Seidel, Homer to Brecht: The European Epic & Dramatic Traditions. He has prepared editions of novels by Hardy, Bennett, Meredith, Wells, and Trollope, the first five volumes of a complete edition of Auden, and selections of Auden’s poems and prose. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, TLS, the New York Times Book Review, and many other journals and collections, and he wrote an introduction for a new edition of Gravity’s Rainbow. He has also written about computers, music, and the visual arts. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was the first Isabel Dalhousie Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh.
Credits: This episode’s music is Homesickness by Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Mendelson’s office 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. Mendelson 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.
“Poetry chose me at an early age. I think it was connected to the fact that poetry is emotional, pretty, and short.”
Rachel Hadas, author of Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia and Poetry (Paul Dry Books), lost her husband to early onset dementia. We talk about how poetry — hers and others’ — gave her solace during this years-long process. We also talk about poetry is a way for the poet to both release and identify emotions, why it was easier to publish collections of poetry in the 1980s and 1990s, the benefits of poetry memorization, and why the Furies looked the other way when Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia.
“Writing helps us to live through something and then it helps us remember it, if we want to.”
BONUS: You get to hear me record an intro after 35 hours with no sleep, and find out about the huge, life-changing thing I did last week!
About our Guest
Rachel Hadas studied classics at Harvard, poetry at Johns Hopkins, and comparative literature at Princeton. Between college and graduate school she spent four years in Greece, an experience that surfaces variously in much of her work. Since 1981 she has taught in the English Department of the Newark (NJ) campus of Rutgers University, and has also taught courses in literature and writing at Columbia and Princeton, as well as serving on the poetry faculty of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the West Chester Poetry Conference. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant in poetry, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Rachel Hadas is the author of many books of poetry, prose, and translations. Most recently, she her memoir about her husband’s illness, Strange Relation, was published by Paul Dry Books (2011) and a new book of her poems, The Golden Road, was published by Northwestern University Press (2012).
Credits: This episode’s music is Strange Conversation by Ted Hawkins. The conversation was recorded at the home of Ms. Hadas on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in a hotel room in London on the same gear. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Rachel Hadas by me.
Reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing: these are the activities organizing the life of this episode’s guest, Willard Spiegelman, author of Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness! We talk about his wonderful book (go read it!), his addiction to ballroom dancing, how to find joy in the day-to-day world, why he hates book clubs, what Dallas, TX is like for a secular Philadelphia Jew, how he turned me on to one of my favorite novels, who his Desert Island Poets are, how he writes about the visual arts, why the world’s great novels are lost on the young, and what it was like to attend his 50th high school reunion. (Also, Harold Bloom crops up yet again; I really gotta try to get him on the show sometime. Boy, talk about the anxiety of influence . . .)
One of the best things about doing this podcast is that I get to meet some wonderful people. In this case, meeting with Willard over two afternoons (story to come) was like making a new old friend.
About our Guest
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University. He also serves as editor-in-chief of Southwest Review, the third oldest continuously published literary quarterly in America. In 2005, Willard won the PEN/Nora Magid award for literary editing. In addition to Seven Pleasures, he’s also written or edited How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry, Wordsworth’s Heroes, Imaginative Transcripts: Selected Literary Essays, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art, The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, and Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt. He writes about the arts for the Wall Street Journal. Oh, and he’s quite dapper.
Credits: This episode’s music is This Charming Man by The Smiths. The conversation was recorded at Willard Spiegelman’s home in New York City, on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band.
Since I got back from that Piraeus seminar in Annapolis in early June (part 1 and part 2), I’ve found myself recharged. Now that I’ve wrapped up the Top Companies issue of my magazine, which occupies my June-into-July every year, I feel like I’m ready to get at a lot of reading and writing. While still juggling the podcast, of course.
I thanked both of the tutors who ran the seminar and also asked Tom May for some suggestions for a “mini-curriculum” on the Romans. I’ve always neglected them, and I think it was largely due to my uninformed notion that they were a pastiche or a degradation of classic Greek culture. By extension, I must have assumed that every last member of that world was as decadent as the empire was in its fallen days. I’m not sure how I stumbled across that idea, and why I left it untested for so long. I’m a yutz. Perhaps my enjoyment of Homer made me reticent to even give Virgil a shot.
In fact, when I was out with an old college pal of mine in San Francisco a few months ago, I was actually irked when she mentioned that she’d never been able to get into Homer, but that the Aeneid rocked her world. Keep in mind
- I have never read Virgil and have no basis for comparison, and
- I’m a 41-year-old man.
So I began reading the Aeneid on Sunday, and am enjoying the heck out of it. It’s not Homer, but it’s not Homer. It’s Virgil.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d share with you the list that Mr. May e-mailed me, along with his disclaimer:
- Livy – History of Rome I-X (at least)
- Virgil – Aeneid
- Ovid – Metamorphoses
- Ovid – Art of Love
- Caesar – Gallic Wars
- Cicero – On Natural Law
- Cicero – On Friendship
- Cicero – On Old Age
- Cicero – On Duties
- Cicero – On Moral Ends
- Catullus – Songs
- Horace – Odes
- Juvenal – Satires
- Seneca – Phaedra
- Seneca – Letters
- Seneca – Morals
- Plautus – Pseudolus
- Plautus – Miles Gloriousus
- Plautus – Menaechmi
- Martial – Epigrams
- Tacitus – Annals of Imperial Rome
- Apuleius – The Golden Ass
- Plutarch’s Lives – Cicero, Brutus, Caesar, Cato, Coriolanus, Antony
- Plotinus – Enneads
“I’ll stop here, making no claim that all of the most important works are here, but all of these are seminal and reverberate through the tradition. I led a Graduate Institute preceptorial on Cicero several years ago that was really a delight, thanks to both Cicero and the class; I’d really like to offer one on Ovid, whose Metamorphoses are indispensable for all art and poetry ever after, it seems.”
The only thing I’ve read in that whole list is a bit of Plutarch (I’m still considering doing a Plutarch feature a la my Monday Morning Montaigne series). So I’m gonna get rolling on that Virgil. Aeneas is just bugging out of Troy at the beginning of book 3.