The Great Books Podcast

Two months ago, National Review magazine launched a weekly podcast called “The Great Books.” My first thought on hearing about this was, “What does a literature podcast from National Review have to offer the world?”

The answer begins with another question: what would the world want from a National Review literature podcast? An appreciation of classics from a socially and politically conservative viewpoint, I suppose.

But that could be the source of its failure as well: when conservative outlets analyze any media or cultural product entirely through the lens of the right wing, it tends to collapse in on itself in an implosion that leaves no trace of itself. Five minutes later, this empty exercise may as well have not even happened. After all, you never hear explicit left wing preaching on NPR–it’s just assumed that that’s the worldview the audience values, and the reports proceed accordingly.

I’m glad to say that the new NR podcast avoids this danger admirably.

I’ve listened to three episodes so far: those for Macbeth, Paradise Lost, and Agamemnon. Each was superb: an expert on each text is interviewed for about half an hour, plot points are discussed in a delicate way that doesn’t try to avoid spoilers but which is far from a SparkNotes summary, and the greatest focus tends to be on timeless themes.

Conservative ideas are never outright given center stage, but are obliquely integrated usefully and organically into the conversation. For example, in the Agamemnon discussion, a parallel is drawn between Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible. The comparisons and contrasts were genuinely enlightening to both texts, and it was just a minor caveat in the larger discussion, as well as an insight I’d never had on my own.

The discussions are never preachy, in any way, but are loving analyses of cherished classics. That’s it. And it works terrifically. They’re often like mini version of the huge lecture courses I like to get from the library, usually on several CDs at a time, where some professor waxes on about the many facts regarding a text. The big difference here is that the podcasts’ conversation format is much more lively–there’s clearly a script of questions, but there are also clearly spontaneous comments and connections from both interviewer and interviewee.

What could anyone want from a literature podcast by National Review? What more could we want?

“The Great Books” podcast is available to hear online and in a variety of apps, in addition to an option to download episodes. My only complaint is that these podcasts aren’t available on YouTube, which would be even more convenient for me. Maybe it’s because there’s no video component, but still.

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The Annotated Steyn

Reading a minor missive from Mark Steyn at National Review earlier today, I was struck for the umpteenth time by just how breezily loquacious he is.  It’s just a blog post, really; by no means a full-fledged article–and yet it carries the confident charm of the most polished master’s thesis.  I’m sure he merely dashed this off, yet is would stand as a major triumph for most authors.

The teacher in me suddenly wanted to footnote his work.  The world needs to see this as I do, I thought.  Those notes are below.  My humble apologies to National Review for reproducing the entire text here, but I think they’ll understand.  It’s necessary to make the point: Steyn’s writing is densely allusive and whimsically clever, and all in the succinct service of a solid point.

Looking at this after I’d marked it up, I found immense satisfaction in being a fan of Steyn’s.  He’s truly a treasure.  I’m a conservative because the ideas are solid and true, but it doesn’t hurt that men like Steyn can also make them so appealing.  One looks in vain for such a scribe on the left.

I mean, could you even imagine a similarly footnoted post called The Annotated Frank Rich?

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“The Last Phobia,” Mark Steyn, posted at NationalReview.com, 9/17/2013

I see David Brooks has attracted a bit of pushback for describing Ted Cruz as “the Senator from Canada,” perhaps snidely hinting at divided loyalties. The Times’s man has jumped the moose[1] with this one. As it turns out, Brooks, like yours truly, was born in Toronto. I think we can all agree that the only thing worse than a Canadian is a self-loathing Canadian[2]: It’s bad enough that the first Canadian president of America has to run around pretending he’ll be the first Hispanic president[3], but it’s outrageous that the New York Times’s only Canuck[4] columnist should be the Roy Cohn [5]of Canadians.

Anyway, as NR readers know, my position, as the presumptive senator from New Hampshire, is that, given the mess you Americans have made of the GOP, I’m in favor (actually, I’m in favour[6]) of an all-Canadian ticket next time round. But in the meantime I don’t see why we Canadians have to skulk around in a state of shame to the point where effete[7] maple-scented[8] Timesmen are forced to be more good-ol’-boy-than-thou[9] and jump the first Canuck in the Senate parking lot. Nuts to this. This is sick. What next? Elizabeth Warren forced to admit she’s one-thirty-second Manitoban?[10]

It doesn’t have to be this way. I have a dream that one day my children will live in an America where they’re judged not on the color of their skin but on whether they’ve got an aunt in Saskatoon.[11]


[1] A play on the idiom “jump the shark.” Moose are often associated with Canada

[2] A play on the phrase “self-loathing Jews,” meaning Jews who oppose things like pro-Israel policies

[3] Perhaps a cheeky reference to Toni Morrison’s label of Bill Clinton as “the first black president”

[4] A slang term for Canadians

[5] Attorney who prosecuted the Rosenbergs and worked with Senator Joeseph McCarthy; Steyn humorously implies that Brooks is persecuting his own people.

[6] A British spelling

[7] Effeminate; Steyn often derides liberals as insufficiently masculine.

[8] Maple syrup is often associated with Canada

[9] A play on the idiom “holier-than-thou.” Steyn is accusing Brooks of populist pandering.

[10] Warren, a Democrat Senator from Massachusetts, famously claimed Native American heritage as a part of her “family folklore,” despite the only known Native American in her family tree being her great, great, great grandmother.

[11] Obviously, a coy reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.

The Talk: All Races Version

Just before the weekend, John Derbyshire published an essay that can only be called racist.  His advice boils down to making snap judgments, based on fear and faulty assumptions, and avoiding black people in general.  It’s awful.  It got him fired from National Review.

In the last few days, it has become understandably controversial.  Many parodies are going up.  I just finished my own version.  It’s not a parody.  If anything, I hope it’s a clarion call for clear thought and open hearts.  I believe the two go together.  It’s a draft, but I think it’s useful.

Derbyshire’s essay was about what white parents supposedly tell their children about blacks.  Mine is meant to be ready-made for people of any race in America to use with all other races.  Derbyshire said that his essay is what he tells his kids.  This is what I tell mine.

 

(1) You’ve noticed by now that there are a lot of colors of people out there.  You’ve probably also noticed that many people place a lot of value in those colors, both their own and everybody else’s.  What you need to know is that people have a right to claim pride in their heritage, including you.  You don’t have to do anything special to acknowledge the feelings of others, but you do have a social obligation to be polite.  If someone else has intense feelings about their race, don’t disregard it.  If they have no feelings for their race or others’, don’t disregard that, either.  If someone has strong feelings about another race, though, their opinion probably isn’t worth listening to.

 

(2) Don’t be obnoxious and make your own feelings an issue for those around you to deal with, though.  It’s rude.

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What is Marriage?

As our society debates what the definition of “marriage” should be, we would do well to remember that by defining a term at all, we must exclude everything that does not fit that definition.

If we say that a chair must be a thing on which you can sit and which has four legs, we can say that a table is a chair, but a rock is not.  If we feel that that is unjust to the rock, we can remove the requirement about four legs, and then say that a rock is a chair, also.  But what if clouds feel left out of the status and benefits of being recognized as a chair?  Eventually, the good intentions of inclusion render reality silly.  Loosening a definition–stretching the field of things that can fall within its purview–weakens the nature of the thing being defined.

However we define marriage, we will, by the nature of “definition,” exclude some people and types of relationships.  It stands to reason that some of those excluded will be good, kind, decent people who only want respect and rewards for committed relationships.  But to expand the definition to a point where all such people are included would necessarily make the definition so broad as to be meaningless.

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Scrutiny in Teaching Writing

A post at National Review, and some great follow up comments from readers, offers some great ideas about teaching writing:

The only way to address writing is to give line-by-line feedback. We cannot assume that students know what good writing looks like. Every time students pass a written assignment at any level with subpar writing, such poor performance is reinforced as acceptable and the poor writing ability become the next professor’s problem.

One of many astute reader comments notes:

Absolutely crucial, if we want students to improve, is that they be required to draft and revise. If they only receive comments — no matter how comprehensive and excellent — on already graded work, they simply won’t attend to them. Why bother if it isn’t going to make any difference on that essay? And they don’t always have the understanding to apply comments on one essay to the next; but if they revise *this* essay by the comments given, then it sparks some realization of how to apply those comments to other work.

Agreed.

This is the single most important thing that students need to learn about writing: every word counts.  Continue reading

Ave Atque Vale: William F. Buckley, Jr.

200px-william_f_buckley2c_jr_1985Today marks one year since William F. Buckley passed away.  As a conservative and, especially, as a proponent of elegant English, Buckley was an idol of mine.  I remember getting his little book, The Lexicon, when I was in college.  I found joy on every page. 

Since then, I’ve delighted in his many books and articles, though I’ve yet to read one of his spy novels.  In tribute, might I recommend an article of his on a subject near and dear to my heart: follow this link and enter these key words to search: defense use unusual words.  The article with those words in the title will come up for your languorous perusal.  (I couldn’t find a direct link to it.  Sorry.) 

A terrific memorial is up today at National Review, the vanguard political establishment that Buckley founded, and which remains the best print voice for the movement.  Even the New York Times ran a respectful obit when he died, which gave a solid overview of Buckley’s career in commentary and composition.