Obsessive reading and podcasts

Summer has finally arrived in Cornwall, and I’ve finished teaching for a few months; consequently I can write about a wider range of matters than usual.

My last post about obsessive, even addictive behaviour among book acquirers and readers elicited a number of comments, most of them from avid readers who recognised the traits I described. Claire (of the Word by Word book blog), however, provided a corrective: addiction is perhaps an inappropriate term to have used. I was picking up on Belinda’s use (in her Bii’s Books blog) of the term ‘sugar addict at the end of Lent’ to refer to a book-buying splurge she indulged in after her #TBR20 project ended. No offence was intended when I likened bookish obsessions to addiction; I should have been more circumspect with my imagery.

Today I’d like to depart in another direction from my usual run of thoughts about what I’ve been reading. I’ve been leafing through an old notebook – one of my obsessions also noted in my previous post: stockpiling and writing random findings about books and culture in these notebooks; I suppose they’re my equivalent of those 18th and 19th century ‘commonplace books’.

I tend to keep a record in these notebooks of peripheral literary/cultural material: newspaper reviews, online articles and so on. I also listen to a lot of podcasts on such matters, especially when walking to work – just over half an hour is perfect for most podcasts. I looked up what I’d written in this one from three years ago. Here’s what I found in this notebook’s entries from June 2012.

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

Eleanor Wachtel: Wikipedia image

One of my favourite literary podcasts is this one by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC): Writers & Company, hosted with intelligent warmth by Eleanor Wachtel (link to its website HERE). The focus is on good writing from all over the world. Recent episodes (all available from the website) include interviews with Irishman Donal Ryan, André Aciman (Francophone Egyptian-Turkish-American), and a series entitled ‘Reimagining the Balkans’: writers, film-makers and others who are expressing what’s happened since the terrible wars of the nineties. Three years ago this is what I’d single out from my notes on what I’d been listening to from this podcast:

Edward St Aubyn (broadcast 25 March 2012), the Melrose novels. Why listen to such podcasts? They throw light on what one has already read, enriching that experience, through Ms Wachtel’s deceptively soft-toned but incisive, probing interviews with authors of books. They also provide recommendations for what to read in the future. It took me over a year to get around to reading these astonishingly raw, witty, viscerally disturbing novels, but they were a searing, brilliant read.

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

Edith Wharton photographed in 1915: image via WikiCommons

A broadcast of 22 April 2012 featured an interview with Hermione Lee on the subject of Edith Wharton, about whom she’d written a biography a few years earlier (there’s an excellent review of it by Hilary Spurling in the Guardian HERE). I found this podcast interesting because of my passion for the work of Henry James, with whom the scary New York socialite had an intriguingly weird relationship.

Next I’d written about the BBC Radio 4 podcast of its long-running cultural programme ‘In Our Time’. There’s a link to its homepage HERE, where its complete archive can be accessed; this can be broken down into categories: Culture (including literature), Philosophy, Religion, Science. Recent topics covered range from Prester John to Utilitarianism; the Lancashire cotton famine during the American Civil War to the poetry of Tagore and the fiction of Fanny Burney.

The item I’d listened to in June 2012 was broadcast on 14 Oct. 2010; it was on the topic of ‘Sturm und Drang’: the short-lived German proto-Romantic aesthetic movement of the late 18th century initiated by Klinger and adopted by Herder, Goethe (his ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, which I’d recently read in June 2012), Lessing, etc. It raised some curious points about masculinity and suicide, among others.

The host, Melvyn Bragg, is sometimes lampooned in the British media for his implausibly luxuriant hair and adenoidal northern English accent. This probably says more about the snobbish prejudices of the English media than it does about Lord Bragg.

Another time I’ll try to recommend some other book-based podcasts that I’ve found rewarding to listen to. They’re the audio equivalent of book blogs, I suppose. When they feature author interviews, however, they often provide insights unavailable to those of us who simply write about our own responses to what we read.

I’ve dug out these notebook-archived pieces deliberately because they still resonate with me when I re-read them now, and attest to the quality of content in these programmes that persists today. I’d urge you to investigate and subscribe to the podcasts mentioned here. They’re all free.



10 thoughts on “Obsessive reading and podcasts

  1. Interesting post Simon. I don’t see addiction as the wrong term to use here, in my case it certainly feels more like an addiction than a passion, Bear in mind that addiction can be behavioural as well as substance related (e.g. people become addicted to gambling, sex, shopping). Here are a couple of interesting articles on the subject: https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/addiction

    Whilst it might be hard to conceive of reading as a ‘damaging’ behaviour, it certainly can be. I engage in book buying knowing I don’t need a book (I have over 1,000 books in my house, and a big chunk of those are not read), I may not be able to afford to buy a book, I may in fact never read the book. It feels like an activity I do not have control over. As to reading, it’s a solitary activity and has the potential to have damaging effect on the relationship I have with my family, it affects our family finances and I read to the exclusion of other activities which would be more beneficial to my health and wellbeing (e.g. going for a walk, swimming, exercising, cleaning). Sitting around reading a book isn’t the best for your health, overall.

    It may be that other people see it as a healthy passion, but in my case I feel like it has gone past the point of feeling healthy. There may have been a light-hearted tone to my blog, but a large part of that is me trying to counsel myself to a better balance with my book buying. Because I have to start somewhere.

    • Thanks for this qualification to previous comments, Belinda. Makes me feel less churlish about using the metaphor. I do know what you mean about the negative impact on family; my wife often remarks on my sequestered state, engrossed in my solitary reading.

      • Responding to Belinda Farrell and Simon, in my mind, there is a somewhat contradictory state of being when it comes to books (reading or writing) and whether they link you to others or isolate you. Hours of solitary reading or writing can isolate you from the present world, but bring you closer to a virtual world of fellow book lovers. For example, lately, I have build a wonderfully rich friendship with a man who, on our job, is at a very different professional level than I. We don’t speak too much in person, but have such a rich e-mail correspondence as fellow lovers of words. Only this week, an incredibly perceptive observation of his opened up a whole new layer of increased possibility in a “short short” story I was working on, as if he could tell me what I was unconsciously striving for in the story hadn’t been able to articulate. It is wonderful feeling so “known” and accepted by someone.

        In contrast, sometimes you can be physically present with family and workmates, and even thought you care for them, you can feel very unknown if they are unable to understand your work.

        Just some rambles. Ta!

        Maureen M

  2. Claire had better not google “book addict” or she’ll have a lot of work to do. It is a common metaphor.

    Do any of those shows or podcasts have transcripts, by any chance? I would read things to which I would not listen. I have never learned how to skim a podcast. Maybe I should learn.

    • I’m not aware of any transcripts, I’m afraid. I find them rewarding, as I say in the post, to listen to when doing something bland: walking, at the gym (now abandoned)…I’d recommend giving them a try when engaged in such activities, rather than sitting down as if to listen to the radio.

  3. I often listen to podcasts if I’m walking around on my own but I tend to flit around between different favourites, mostly film reviews or arts programmes. R4’s The Film Programme, Front Row and one of the R3 pods – Arts and Ideas, I think. I’m not familiar with the CBC one you’ve mentioned, will take a look.

    • I tend to be selective with podcasts; most of them include items or features that don’t interest me so much. As with any reading, it pays to pick and choose. But the CBC one is certainly worth taking a look at. I’ll add to the list in future posts. I sometimes wonder as I walk into town or to work with my iPhone earbuds distinctively on show if onlookers assume I’m a sad old geezer trying to look trendy by listening to rap or something…Instead it’s probably an interview with Krasznahorkai!

  4. I just saw this post. Thanks for calling attention to Eleanor Wachtel and Writers & Company. I am frequently highlighting specific interviews when a book or author is under discussion somewhere. She is such an astute reader that authors often remark how wonderful it is to be interviewed by her. Her interviews in the fall sometimes follow the same authors who start the festival circuit out where I live in western Canada and never fail to add another element to a live interview I might have recently seen. I can’t sing her praises highly enough.

    I’m lucky in that in my part of the country the show airs at 5:00PM Sunday, a convenient time for a live listen. She also hosts a monthly segment “Wachtel on the Arts” on the CBC radio documentary series Ideas which focuses on film, dance and theatre.

    • Thanks for this fascinating insight, roughghosts: isn’t the internet great – we can have this kind of exchange, me in Cornwall, England, you in Canada! I’m delighted to hear you share my enthusiasm for Ms Wachtel’s interviewing style – she’s intelligent, sure-footed and has the knack of bringing her interviewee out. Great voice, too.

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