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As long as people have shared stories, myths and accounts of who they are, such texts have been subject to debate, revision and genuine struggle. Canonical texts provide a stage for conflicts but also for agreement between generations. This is not only true of the culture wars that have spilled out from academia into mainstream American culture over the past 30 years (Should Homer be part of the curriculum? How many women writers can we find? are white male authors really the greatest writers in the world? Who sets the criteria by which the canon operates? Is it really a matter of pitting Milton against Morrison, or are there better way of thinking of the canon as a living thing?) Books can unify people from different backgrounds who recognize something in them that they didn’t know they shared, or they can divide people who discover that their values are not compatible or that a given text validates only one way of looking at and being in the world. What’s clear is that the idea of a shared canon is not only aesthetic but also political, not only about art but also about ideology.

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 and the guest, but then I also 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, 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.