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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, 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, 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.

This essential link between the freedom of expression and imaginative fiction is not fully grasped even in nuanced discussions of censorship, publishing conventions, authority and canons. It can only be grasped in reading closely, passionately, and with enough humility to let another’s imagination envision a new world.

All of the conversations center on this link between the freedom to be heard on one’s own terms, and literature (and some books of philosophy). I choose books that transform not only how we think but how we live in the world. These books don’t just add new perspectives, voices, and stories to what is already known. They don’t offer well-phrased sociological insights, nor political positions, nor the personal truth of any one particular life. All of them transcend these concerns to arrive at another kind of immediacy (or, if you will, immanence): the immediacy of the spoken word. These books transform the very paradigms by which we know ourselves and the world we live in.

And, as Catharine Stimpson explains in the conversation on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, these books are marked by: cultural influence; mastery of language; scope of the imagination, and (crucially) moral capaciousness. Or, as James Baldwin explained in his lecture discussed by Rich Blint in one episode, “The Moral Responsibility of the Artist,” 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 I talk about with Manthia Diawara: “Art 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. Look for conversations on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, James Baldwin’s Another Country, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Henri David Thoreau’s Walden, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Paul Celan’s poetry, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Duino Elegies, and more (originally in Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese…you’ll be surprised!) with truly remarkable interlocutors.