Informed and entertaining conversations about books that transform the world.

There are many great books, and then there are books that transform not only how we think about but how we live in the world. These books don’t just add new perspectives, voices, and stories to what we know already. These books transform the very paradigms (to use a concept first introduced by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, featured on an upcoming episode) by which we know ourselves and the world we live in.

And, as Catharine Stimpson explains in an upcoming conversation on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, these books are marked by: great influence on the culture; mastery of language; scope of the imagination, and moral capaciousness. (Kate will explain this a bit more). Or, as James Baldwin explained in his lecture, “The Moral Responsibility of the Artist,” the artist reimagines that which we accept as real and natural, so we can truly see and grasp reality for the first time. Or as Chinua Achebe, whose masterpiece Things Fall Apart I talk about with Manthia Diawara, noted: “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.

This podcast is devoted to conversations about those books that matter in this profound, paradigm-shifting way.

The Great Books series pairs interesting thinkers with some of the tradition’s greatest books to reveal how those books (as powerful exemplars of free speech, incidentally) chart new ways of looking at the world. 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, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Henri David Thoreau’s Walden, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Duino Elegies, Paul Celan’s poetry, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, James Baldwin’s Another Country, and more.a with truly remarkable interlocutors. Send an email with suggestions for additional books you’d like to hear more about.

Episodes: Great Books

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“On or around December 1910, human character changed.” Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, with Jared Stark.

“On or around December 1910, human character changed.” Virginia Woolf’s 1927 masterpiece To The Lighthouse teaches us how to take  stock of the experience of living in the modern age. We know that we experience time not uniformly, but how do we make sense of that? How can it be that years pass and we barely blink an eye, but an afternoon can stretch into near-eternity, when we want something, or are denied what we desire? How do we account properly for the different ways in which men and women pass their time during a period when such roles were about to be challenged so powerfully by many including Woolf, in this book and also in Three Guineas, and A Room of One’s Own?

Professor Jared Stark has written about Woolf and taught her work for many years. His most recent book, A Death of One’s Own: Literature, Law, and the Right to Die was published in 2018. He is Professor of Literature and Comparative Literature at Eckerd College.

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“You must not tell anyone…” Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, with Ava Chin

What stories should we remember, and which ones are we forced to forget? What if we discover a truth from the past that shaped us even though we didn't know it? Maxine Hong Kingston's 1975 masterpiece, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, transformed American literature by adding a voice that had been with us all along yet insufficiently recognized. The book gives expression to the experience of Chinese Americans, which Kingston splices, multiplies and amplifies in five powerful sections of a book that delve into Chinese mythology, the experience of immigrants, and the difficult and tenuous ways of passing stories from generation to generation. In my conversation with professor Ava Chin, author of Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, who has been teaching The Woman Warrior for many years, we examine how this gripping book of one girl's coming of age teaches us to figure out which parts of us are true to ourselves, and which ones have been imposed on us by others.

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Professor Manthia Diawara, on Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's 1958 Things Fall Apart transformed the world by vividly imagining the story of an African community in English, the language of the colonizers, and yet on its own terms. It transformed not only the English language but allowed millions of readers to enter into a civilization and worldview that is at once highly specific yet resonant with universal themes. Manthia Diawara, a Mali-born and European-educated renowned filmmaker and writer himself, explains why Things Fall Apart ranks among the great novels of all time, and how reading this book brings you face-to-face with the great challenges and joys faced by all humans at all times.