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The Organist's Verbal Virtuosos

11 Episodes

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Radio storytelling has a way of getting you to ingest complicated ideas without quite realizing what’s happening — like stuffing a pill into a glob of peanut butter to get your dog to swallow it. (In this example, the peanut butter is narrative, and you are the dog.) But ideas and arguments don’t need to be slathered in story to be appetizing. There’s another variety of verbal virtuoso, a person Oscar Wilde called “The Critic as Artist”: she is an explainer whose explanations become as beautiful, strange, or rewarding as the very things she’s explaining. Here, then, is a wee pantheon of some contemporary masters of the form: explanations of things are as beautiful (or strange, or rewarding) as the very things they’re explaining.

All Episodes

  • 52:11

    Beginning to process the election

    The Reckoning | Episode 10

    In the NY Times Magazine, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham are both weekly practitioners of the art of criticism, and their podcast, “Still Processing,” translates their intelligence (which is sharpened on the one side by outrage and deep humor on the other) into pod form. This episode, featuring the brilliant Margo Jefferson (a modern artist-critic par excellence), reflects their range, as they struggle not only to feel all the feels, but to think all the thoughts, too.

  • Driving around Morocco with Paul Bowles

    Episode 72: Baptism of Solitude: Paul Bowles's Morocco Tapes

    Our season four opener starts out as an album review, then decides to stop being an album review in order to tell an incredible story about the iconic novelist Paul Bowles driving around Morocco in a VW bug in the 1950s with a brick of hash and a suitcase-sized Ampex tape recorder in the backseat. Then it goes back to being a record review, but not before you’ve inadvertently learned about Moroccan independence, North African musical traditions, and the ethics of ethnography.

  • 36:02

    Tracing the circuits of global capitalism

    37 Featuring Ben Lerner

    Anshuman Iddamsetty produced 51 episodes of “The Arcade” for the Canadian literary magazine Hazlitt before moving on in 2015. To call it a literary interview podcast is to miss the remarkable things Iddamsetty accomplishes with structure and sound. Each episode feels like a hand-crafted, oddly shaped shrine to the featured author. Ben Lerner, with his churning self-consciousness and preoccupation with the intersections between art and life, might have been Iddamsetty’s ideal guest.

  • 09:49

    A poem by Mary Ruefle

    Mary Ruefle - The Woman Who Couldn't Describe a Thing If She Could

    I have a mild allergy to podcasts that begin with extended updates on the host’s personal life, but Robyn O’Neil, “an artist who just likes to read things out loud,” is so funny and self-deprecating and smart — and her taste in books is so good — that I’m into it.

  • 40:10

    The birth of an art form

    Secret Histories of Podcasting

    Benjamen Walker works (with Erica Heilman’s Rumble Strip, above) in the “wandering ear” tradition. I think he might have even invented it — though I’m no podcast historian. So maybe I need to re-listen to this episode, which offers three parallel histories of podcasting, told in Walker’s peripatetic (and influential) style.

  • 37:44

    Why did Manson seem like a normal guy?

    44: Charles Manson’s Hollywood, Part 1: What We Talk About When We Talk About The Manson Murders

    The film critic Karina Longworth laces her addictive essays on “Hollywood’s first century” with music, movie clips, reenactments, and other dramatic adornments, transforming them into absorbing, epic biopics for the ear.

  • 1:03:06

    On philosophy and eugenics

    11. Hannibal and Eric André have a deep conversation about philosophy and eugenics.

    You could argue that standup comedy is a form of criticism as art: the best comics riff on contemporary culture in elaborate, incisive verbal essays. Buress is in that class of comic, but I think the real reason I love his work is his deadpan. His deadpan just feels so… dead. But it still stays generous and warm. I’m saying he has a terminal, friendly deadpan.

  • Examining the other in stories

    John Keene: Counternarratives

    Silverblatt’s approach to interviewing isn’t so much to ask his authors questions as to perform elaborate, incisive readings of their books and then watch them respond. And their responses are, more often than not, a version of astonished appreciation. “I’ve heard you were an acute reader,” David Foster Wallace remarked in quiet awe, after Silverblatt described the “fractal” structure of Infinite Jest in a classic 1996 interview. But there are moments like this in almost every one of Silverblatt’s interviews.

  • 1:02:55

    The safety myth of black colleges

    And Not A White School

    Podcasting was invented in the fourth century BCE, in Athens, by the Greek philosopher Socrates and his student Plato, who argued that philosophy was best understood not through books but in real-life dialogue, conducted with a fellow lover of knowledge, featuring occasional jokes about drinking and sex. Brittany and Eric are, to my ears, working firmly in this tradition, rationally examining and interrogating the often irrational (and “uncool”) world that surrounds them.

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