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The human need for self-expression is fundamental and deep. It precedes the political organization of social life. Speaking out for oneself, on one’s own terms, is essential to our existence. Literature, originally probably story-telling, song, and prayer, is the manifestation of this deep urge. The Great Books section of this podcast is devoted to books and authors who introduce new voices and expressions to the world — or who make manifest voices, experiences and stories that have always existed but not been recognized as having universal significance and meaning. Each book or author featured here presents something new to their readers. Something unprecedented, which is this particular author’s mode of giving expression to the world, of using language and the imagination to not only describe and represent but truly re-imagine reality, and to give voice to a self that is utterly unique. Literature, because it insists on the singularity of the human voice and on the possibility that this singular voice can be understood by others, is truly radical and world-transforming. Metaphor, which is the human capacity to say one thing by saying something else, and to make one thing mean something in a different context, is then at the heart of any transformation (whether personal, legal, political, material, or spiritual). The Great Books podcast celebrates and examines literature from the angle of free expression — and shows how the canon of great books, far from a depository of conservative ideology and suppression, is a tradition of tremendous revolutionary power. Revolutionary in the sense of transforming the world into a place where self-expression does not mean the extinction and silencing of other voices, where creativity means creating a world where all human beings have equal claims at being heard, and where the struggle over who is heard is also a struggle for the self to gain a voice. (This liberating dimension of imaginative literature is studiously avoided by contemporary conservatives who invoke “Western values” or a “Western canon” to advance their reactionary agendas. Instead, they cite “Western thought” without reading any of it, but to invoke an idea of cultural supremacy that is not supported by the texts they blithely invoke.)

The Great Books section of the podcast helps you understand the role played by great books and lets you share in the discussion, dialogue, and disagreement — or agreement — which can emanate from reading a book together. As the podcast’s host, I do my best to know as much as I can about the book or author and the guest, and then I do my best to open the book up for readers who are not specialists. There are moments when my guests correct me, tell me that my framing of a given text is a bit off, or that I’ve reduced the text to a commonplace, instead of allowing its power to move us unfold freely. The result, I hope: Informed, smart, and entertaining conversations about books that transform the world. 

“It was not death she feared. It was misunderstanding.” This line from one of our nation’s unsurpassed novels, Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) — discussed with Deborah G. Plant in episode 11 of the Great Books series — captures what is at the heart of all great literature: the irrepressible urge to speak, express oneself, and be heard and understood. “I had things clawing inside of me that must be said,” Hurston added in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), to explain her decision to leave a man she truly loved. But they “must be said” not only to satisfy a deeply personal urge but also to testify to the more general human need for self-expression. It’s not (or not only) the specific facts and experiences that need to be heard: it is the human voice as an expression that must be recognized on its own terms. This, of course, is what great literature is: the claim of someone’s voice and vision to be accepted on their terms — and thus, to let a deeply personal story re-arrange the way in which we all experience the world.  

And, as Catharine R. Stimpson explains — in episode seven of the Great Books series, on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe, 1949) — these books are marked by cultural influence, mastery of language, scope of the imagination, and, crucially, moral capaciousness. Or, as James Baldwin explained in a speech (titled “The Moral Responsibility of the Artist”) at the University of Chicago in 1963 — discussed by Rich Blint in episode five of the Great Books series, James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962) — these works reimagine that which we habitually accept as real and natural so that we may truly see and grasp reality for the first time, apart from the social conventions that all too often block our perception. A further criterion is added by Chinua Achebe, whose masterpiece Things Fall Apart (1958) I talk about with Manthia Diawara in the first episode of the Great Books series: “[A]rt is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” Or her, we gently add.

 The Great Books series pairs interesting thinkers with some of the tradition’s greatest books to show how those books shift our perception of the world and provide new paradigms that offer a way out of our current dilemmas. In addition to the above mentioned episodes, look for conversations on Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (1923), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1823), Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques (1955), Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu, 1913–1927), Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, 1930), Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980–1991), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love (1988), and more — with truly remarkable interlocutors.