Informed, smart, 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 but how we live in the world. These books don’t just add new perspectives, voices, and stories to what is already known. 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: cultural influence; mastery of language; scope of the imagination, and (crucially) moral capaciousness. Or, as James Baldwin explained in his lecture, “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, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Duino Elegies, and more with truly remarkable interlocutors.

Episodes: Great Books

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Find What is Moving in Your Soul: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, with Glenn Wallis.

Kahlil Gibran’s 1923 The Prophet is a book that’s changed people’s lives. It is a deceptively simple book, but it contains a radical insight. “Of what can I speak save of that which is even now moving in your souls?” What can a book teach us that we cannot know ourselves? Read more here.

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Time for America to Grow Up: James Baldwin’s Another Country, with Rich Blint.

"If we - and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks [...] do not falter in our duty now, we may be able [...] to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” James Baldwin's appeal and admonition ring as true as they did in the 1960s, when the novelist became the nation's conscience - and also started to feel "like a broken record," repeating a message that white America refused to accept. The current revival of Baldwin in films, books, and documentaries such as Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (2015), Raoul Peck's documentary based on Baldwin’s writings, I Am Not Your Negro (2017), Jesmyn Ward's incisive collection of essays, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race"(2017), and Barry Jenkins's feature film, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), and references by liberals and conservatives alike, signal that something is yet to be grasped in Baldwin's powerful words. Rich Blint is a scholar, writer and curator who teaches at the New School in New York City, and the author of a forthcoming book on Baldwin who has published, curated events, and participated in key academic events on Baldwin's unceasing relevance over the past several years. Rich explains what it means to take Baldwin seriously today — and why his work continues to be of such powerful relevance. Rich talks with me about Baldwin's powerful and indispensable 1961 novel, Another Country to show how Baldwin's vision can guide our actions today. He explains what it would mean to heed Baldwin's advice for the nation to finally leave its romantic adolescent delusions behind (including, I've learned in this conversation, its attachment to interracial buddy movies), and truly grow up. Special thanks to Rowan Ricardo Phillips, author of The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey and Heaven: Poems, for lending his voice to some of Baldwin’s quotes.

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A Revolutionary “New Truth” for America: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with Carol Gilligan.

Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter tells the dramatic story of a woman cast out of society for adultery and condemned to wear a badge of shame in Puritan New England. Renowned psychologist Carol Gilligan identifies Hawthorne’s masterpiece as “the American novel” because (as Hawthorne puts it toward the book’s end) it points to a “new truth [that would place] the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.” Gilligan revolutionized our understanding of human development by listening to girls, and showing, in her landmark study, In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Human Development, how a “different voice” reveals something about our humanity that is more truthful, more authentic, and more generative for our lives together than the voice that privileges autonomy, identity and separation as moral ideals. Gilligan is the author of many other books, including a novel and the recent Why Does the Patriarchy Persist, and (with David Richards), Darkness Now Visible: Patriarchy’s Resurgence and Feminist Resistance. She explains how The Scarlet Letter is not only about the wages of sin and tragic love, but also about a vision of democracy that we have yet to realize fully, and about the way feminism is the key to achieving our democracy as it is threatened by the persistence of the patriarchy. Gilligan’s reading lifts Hawthorne’s book above its status as required reading, often assigned as a lesson in morality or a book about the long-gone past, by showing how The Scarlet Letter presents a vision of authentic love and a path to true democracy where equality and justice will be attained.

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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? Is consciousness the true standard for experience, and external, measured time only the tide against which we strive to assert ourselves?

Professor Jared Stark is a scholar of literature and Professor of Literature and Comparative Literature at Eckerd College in Florida. He has written about Woolf and taught her works for many years. His most recent book, A Death of One’s Own: Literature, Law, and the Right to Die was published in 2018. Special thanks to Tamsin Shaw, author of Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism, for lending her voice (reliving childhood moments when her mother asked her to recite Woolf for dinner guests!) to some of Woolf’s quotes.

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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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One of the Great Novels of All Time: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, with Manthia Diawara.

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, the Mali-born and European and American-educated renowned filmmaker, most recently An Opera of the World, and author of many books himself, including We Won’t Budge: An African Exile in the World, explains why Things Fall Apart ranks among the great novels of all time. Manthia brings the book powerfully to life, and shows how reading this book brings you face-to-face with the great challenges and joys faced by all humans at all times.